A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?
SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about entertainment! Flynn plays West Point Cadet Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan is his best bud George Custer, who, along with Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, and George Hood (all later to become opposing generals), get into an altercation with Cadet Rader, a staunch supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. Rader is given a dishonorable discharge for spreading subversive ideas, and Stuart and Custer are sent upon graduation (by West Point Commandant Robert E. Lee, no less!) to “the most dangerous branch of the United States Army”, Fort Leavenworth in the bloody Kansas Territory, a hotbed of violence and unrest fomented by Brown’s misguided reign of terror.
Both Stuart and Custer become enamored of fellow grad Bob Holliday’s sister Kit… and since Flynn plays Stuart and Kit is Olivia de Havilland, guess who wins? Papa Holliday is trying to get his railroad across Kansas to the Santa Fe Trail (hence the film’s title), but is having difficulties due to all the blood-soaked raids going on. Stuart and Custer are assigned to guard a shipment of Bibles, not knowing the crates are filled with rifles heading to Brown’s encampment (yep, the old “guns hidden in crates marked Bibles” routine!). When the weapons are accidentally discovered, Brown’s disciples reveal themselves… including Stuart’s old nemesis Rader!
Stuart goes undercover to find John Brown’s latest hideout, but he’s betrayed by the U.S. Army brand on his horse. Captured by Brown and his men, doomed to hang at dawn, our man Jeb attempts escape, becoming trapped in a burning barn until Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue! With John Brown seemingly vanquished and out of the territory, Stuart and Custer are reassigned to Washington, not knowing Brown is in the vicinity, and plotting his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry…
Errol Flynn doesn’t exactly sound like a Southerner, but he more than makes up for it with his courtly manners and dashing heroics. He could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat, and was at the peak of his popularity while making SANTA FE TRAIL. Released right after Christmas 1940, the film was a big success at the box office, and the team of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would hit it big again the next year in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, with Errol portraying Custer this time around at the Battle of Little Big Horn. That one would be their last screen pairing, and while Olivia went on to receive two Oscars, Errol continued doing what he did best, charming the pants off movie lovers onscreen… and young girls offscreen! (As for poor Ronald Reagan, once again he loses out to Flynn in the romance department. Oh well, he wound up doing okay for himself a few decades later!)
Raymond Massey plays John Brown with religious fervor and a mad gleam in his eyes. Brown’s anti-slavery cause was just, though his methods touting violent revolution were extreme to say the least. Massey’s Brown feels he’s guided by God’s hand, and the actor portrays him as an unsympathetic zealot with a Messianic complex. The film itself is ambiguous about the question of slavery, with both sides represented by Stuart and Custer, making it more an issue of State’s Rights vs Federal Power than a moral one, in order to appeal to the audiences both North and South. It’s a tricky balancing act, but somehow screenwriter Robert Buckner (who wrote five other Flynn vehicles) makes it work.
Van Heflin is equally villainous as Rader, Brown’s military adviser, who later has a change of heart when Brown reneges on his payment. Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams , Flynn’s offscreen drinking buddies, are on hand for comic relief. The cast is huge, and among them you’ll find Alan Baxter , Ward Bond , David Bruce , Hobart Cavanaugh, Victor Kilian, John Litel, William Lundigan, Charles Middleton, Henry O’Neill, Moroni Olsen, Gene Reynolds, Frank Wilcox, and many others (if you’re really sharp, you’ll recognize Grace Stafford, the future voice of Woody Woodpecker!).
Curtiz delivers another gem in the director’s chair, guiding his large cast through their paces and proving once again he was a cinematic genius. His staging of the bloody battle at Harper’s Ferry is a master class in how to film an action scene, in collaboration with DP Sol Polito, editor George Amy, and special effects man Byron Haskin, with Max Steiner’s music roaring in the background. SANTA FE TRAIL may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stunning example of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, with talent before and behind the camera the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.