Santa Fe Trail (1940)

 

 

 

 

Director:    Michael Curtiz

Starring:     Errol Flynn (J.E.B. Stuart), Olivia de Haviland Kit Carson Halliday, the girl Stuart and Custer vie for), Raymond Massey (John Brown), Ronald Reagan (George Armstrong Custer), Alan Hale (Tex Bell), Guinn Williams (Windy Brody), William Lundigan (Bob Holliday), Ward Bond (Townley), Van Heflin Rader), Gene Reynolds (Jason Brown), John Litel (Martin), Charles Middleton (Gentry).

on trail of John Brown; 1856 Pottawatomie Creek massacre; 1859 Harper's Ferry

 

 

 

 

This is a crazy quilt hodgepodge of mixed-up history.  The screenwriters throw a lot of historical figures into the film that don't really fit together.  J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart (Errol Flynn) plays the famous Confederate cavalry leader who is chasing down the famous abolitionist and insurrectionist John Brown (Raymond Massey), with former US President Ronald Reagan playing Jeb Stuart's West Point classmate and romantic rival, George Armstrong Custer, another future famous cavalry leader, but this time for the Union.  

George Armstrong Custer did not serve in Bloody Kansas.  He did not graduate until 1861 and when he did, he went straight into the Civil War.  He would have been too young to graduate with J.E.B. Stuart. 

J.E.B. Stuart did serve in Bloody Kansas, but as far as I know he was not chasing John Brown.  And John Brown was surely not the leader of the anti-slavery forces in Kansas. 

The movie demonizes John Brown.  Raymond Massey plays the character, with eyes bulging, as a crazy man.  What people seem to forget in the case of John Brown was that Kansas was in deep trouble.  Many scholars say that the Civil War started in Kansas.  Pro-slavery men from next-door Missouri and elsewhere were particularly violent in Kansas.  Their leaders were men like Quantrill with his Quantrill's Raider (along with Frank James of the later James gang) and "Bloody Bill" Anderson.  (When a person gets a nickname of Bloody that means he is no boy scout!)  John Brown was a piker compared to these criminal pro-slavery killers. 

So the fight was on in Kansas and it is silly to point the finger at John Brown as responsible for all the bad things that happened in Kansas.  Brown was just not that powerful or influential.  And he certainly never had a little army of a hundred or more men as portrayed in the movie. 

J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee did play a significant role in putting down Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry, then in Virginia.  That is about the only truth in the movie.

There are historical forces arising out of deep social divisions that completely overpower the ability of mere man to prevent them.  The Civil War started when the first slaves arrived in the future U.S.A., before any Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock.  The North and South soon became divided into two hostile camps.  All that was wanting was a spark to set the war off.  That spark was the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president (and not the actions of John Brown). 

John Brown was a prophet.  He accurately foretold that the only way to end the evil of slavery was through the spilling of blood.  John Brown added to the polarization of North and South, but he certainly was not the cause of the Civil War.  So for Americans to blame John Brown is very naive and unfair.  But many who refuse to face the truth like to blame a scapegoat for the cause of something as disastrous as the loss of over 623,000 men. 

Personally I did not care for the film.  I felt it was scapegoating John Brown for the terrible fact of the existence of slavery in the United State.  I do not think John Brown was a madman.  He was probably certainly obsessive, but on the other hand there were many people willing to fight and die in Kansas and elsewhere to end slavery.  (I take it from the movie script, that the screenwriters would not have bothered with it.  They would have waited for civil war to come to them, happily unaware that it was even coming.  Such people are never considered heroes.  And a hero was John Brown because while almost everybody else was apologizing for and compromising with slavery, John Brown took action to end something that was and is very evil. )

The acting was o.k., but the script was just too stupid, inaccurate and unfair to get enthused. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

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