The movie is 5 stars but beware of DVD
justice4all72 | 04/03/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I guess you get what you pay for, this dvd is horrible. The quality is terrible and appears to be recorded from a video camera filming the movie displayed on a projector. The Sante Fe Trail is one of my favorite movies but due to its lack of "political correctness" the studios refuse to remaster and release an official version. I would avoid this dvd and hope for a official release sometime in the future."
Great film-making + terrible history + problematic morality
Muzzlehatch | the walls of Gormenghast | 05/05/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"A litmus test if there ever was one for how much one can tolerate both historical inaccuracies and an extreme level of political incorrectness in an older film, Michael Curtiz' SANTA FE TRAIL (1940) is sometimes considered a western but might better be described as an antibellum historical fantasy, pitting the heroic J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and his best buddy George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) against the dastardly and cruel John Brown (Raymond Massey) for the soul and future of America. Though roughly the middle hour of the two-hour film does take place on the frontier of Kansas, the action here mostly concerns the raids of Brown and the Army's attempts to stop them, with more than a little time set aside for the romantic story of the two friends vying for the hand of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland, in her 7th pairing with Flynn), and the comic antics of a couple of new-old recruits played by Alan Hale and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams.
The story begins though at West Point, near the graduation of the class of 1854, which according to this film includes not only Stuart (who actually did graduate that year) and Custer (actually 1861) but also fellow Civil War generals Longstreet (class of 1842), Pickett (1846) and Hood and Sheridan (1853). Some of the future generals are southern sympathizers, some northerners, and their emotions get riled up by a scowling, angry young abolitionist named Carl Rader (Van Heflin), who starts a fight with the slave-owning Stuart that results in him being kicked out of the Army, and the other participants being posted in the most dangerous outpost possible - Bleeding Kansas. They are sent there by Colonel Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen); their graduating address is by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (Erville Alderson); these last two figures are presented with a little bit more accuracy, at least at first.
Here we learn that Brown - in this fictionalization - is a brutal, autocratic crazy man, convinced that God is on his side and that no sin that he or his followers might commit is too grave when in the pursuit of their holy mission. This is a John Brown completely without honor, who seems so wrapped up in his fervor that the slaves he frees are of secondary importance to him at best. And the slaves know it, wondering what will become of them once they are on their own. "You'll have to fend for yourselves" Brown tells them, and later in the film we see a slave couple wishing they could be back in the paternalistic arms of a Master again. But Brown will not be stopped, and eventually when driven out of Kansas - after his youngest son is killed, to little sympathy on the father's part - he heads back East for his eventual rendezvous with destiny at Harper's Ferry.
Will it help audiences today to keep in mind that few historical films from this era were terribly accurate? Will it matter that the film, made just a year after GONE WITH THE WIND and featuring one of the principal cast members from that film, offers a revisionist pro-southern attitude that was not all that uncommon at the time? Probably not for many people, and these problems I suspect are a large part of why this film isn't all that fondly remembered and doesn't show up on a lot of "greatest films" or even "greatest westerns" lists, despite its cast and director. It is a bit too much to swallow for me, and there's no question that the attitudes about history in a film like this that ostensibly shows real event can't just be wished away or lightly dismissed. And I don't blame it necessarily on the conservatism of the filmmakers, studio or screenwriter Robert Buckner; after all arch-conservative John Wayne was far more historically accurate (if not perfect) and fair-minded with THE ALAMO a couple of decades later. Nope, it's slapdash storytelling and making history fit the film, something big studio productions have been guilty of throughout Hollywood history.
On the other hand, political correctness should not forbid us from enjoying the numerous successful aspects of the film as an entertainment, namely Curtiz' excellent and assured moving camerawork in concert with top DP Sol Polito (who had also shot several of Curtiz' previous films including THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and DODGE CITY), and some good performances, particularly Raymond Massey's frightful and demonic John Brown and Van Heflin's greedy and unscrupulous Rader. Flynn, Reagan and de Havilland are all fine, but they're all doing variations on roles they'd already played many times - there isn't a lot of meat to any of the heroic characters here (and the Flynn-Reagan-de Havilland love triangle obvious, trite, and played too jokily to really draw one in), and the villains are a lot more colorful. I guess they have to be, seeing as how the film has to convince us that these abolitionists are the bad guys in the first place, and that "freedom" doesn't really mean what most of us think it does today.
A mixed bag then, and one I'd hesitate to recommend to any whose tastes I don't know well. I certainly had fun with it, but I cringed quite a bit as well. You've been warned."