Friday, June 19, 2015

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Director: Michael Curtiz                               Writer: Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan and Van Heflin

This Warner Brothers classic suffers unduly from the fact that it was allowed to slip into public domain, and thus it appears on any number of sub-standard copies on DVD. But this is understandable considering what an odd film Santa Fe Trail is. It attempts to tell the story of abolitionist John Brown during his time in Kansas, but in casting him as the villain it inadvertently makes heroes of the supporters of Southern slavery--though not really. The heroes are meant to be the soldiers who aren’t supposed to take sides in politics but defend their country, which leaves the audience wanting for a clear side to root for. Even so, it’s an interesting, if flawed, story though not a great film. And this is surprising given the pedigree it possesses. It not only has the distinction of being the first teaming of Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, but it is also the penultimate film of Errol Flynn and de Havilland’s successful partnership. In addition, the film was directed by the great Michael Curtiz and scored by the equally brilliant Max Steiner. Ultimately it’s Robert Bruckner’s screenplay the lets the production down and what has no doubt relegated the film to public domain abuse.

The film begins at the West Point Military Academy in 1954, with a group of cadets soon to graduate under the command of Moroni Olsen as Robert E. Lee. Many of them are Southerners and would go on to fight under Lee in the Civil War, but here the story is one of contention between those cadets, Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan as George Custer among others, against an agitator for militant abolition played by Van Heflin. After a fight breaks out the graduates are banished to Kansas in the West--though it turns out that’s just what they wanted rather than sitting in a peace-time army post--while Heflin is dishonorably discharged. At graduation both Flynn and Reagan fall for Olivia de Havilland, the sister of William Lundigan and daughter of a railroad magnate, and on the way with her on the train to Leavenworth, slave trader John Litel’s partner is shot while trying to keep one of John Brown’s sons from taking slaves into Kansas. Once they arrive at the fort, the job of the new officers is to take a wagon train financed by Henry O’Neill to Santa Fe while de Havilland stays back to run her father’s company, and hired hands Alan Hale and Guinn Williams go along to look out for her interests.

Meanwhile, along the trail, Raymond Massy as John Brown has set up a camp to keep slavery out of Kansas at all costs, even to the point of killing the militant pro-slavery groups who were acting like outlaws to coerce the state into slavery. In his group are the disgruntled Van Heflin and new recruit Ward Bond. Massey stops the train to pick up guns packed in crates marked as bibles, and while Heflin wants to settle his old score with Flynn, Massey just wants to take the guns and go. But Flynn isn’t going to let them and takes as many men as he can and gives chase. Eventually the army has had enough as well and sends the troops to hunt down and bring back Massy for execution. That’s when Massy abandons Kansas and heads east to foment war. The most notably historical stretching of the truth is the way the film gathers a dozen famous military men in one graduating class at West Point when in fact their graduations were actually spread over several years both before and after 1954. Other events in the life of John Brown during his time in Kansas--including the deaths of two of his sons who actually died in Harper’s Ferry two years later--were fictionalized as well. The biggest problem with the film, however, is the incredibly disappointing portrayal of freed blacks who are abandoned by Massey and then decide they want to go back to the South and their former lives as slaves.

The one bright spot in the film is, of course, it’s stars. With Errol Flynn’s regular foil Patric Knowles having moved on to Universal by this time, Warners decided to try Ronald Reagan in his place, and the team did well in the two films they appeared in together. Flynn’s other sidekick, Alan Hale, is relegated to comedy relief here just as he would be in the World War II film Desperate Journey, the other Flynn-Reagan film. Olivia de Havilland finally regains the kind of strength of character that had been lacking since she was first teamed with Flynn in Captain Blood, while Raymond Massey delivers a terrific performance as the crazed abolitionist. Van Heflin begins strong, but his part is so small it doesn’t really give him a chance to show his full range of talents. In terms of the direction, Michael Curtiz is everything one could ask for, especially in the battle sequences, with ground-level cameras and overhead shots adding a lot of visual variety, though Max Steiner’s score is disappointingly generic, and some of the production design seems thrown together at the last minute. Santa Fe Trail is not a great film, but is certainly a must see for fans of the stars and the director.

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