Martyrdom suits Brown’s purpose, and it is in this extremism that he is ultimately un-American. His cause may be morally right but his attempt to impose it is not; the movie clearly prefers the way that Flynn (a Southerner) and Reagan/Custer (a Northerner) simply agree to disagree, and ride on together. This is a more subtle point than one of slavery versus abolitionism, and probably the reason that Santa Fe Trail is so widely misunderstood, even though the movie returns to the idea again and again: it is taking issue with the means of reform, not the end.
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“If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” Sam Goldwyn is supposed to have said. The feeling clearly wasn’t shared at Warner Bros., where a whole slew of pre-Pearl Harbor movies made little effort to conceal their anti-German sentiment, and if it was most overt in those with modern settings – Sergeant York, Confessions of a Nazi Spy – it was never far beneath the surface in the historical dramas produced by Hal Wallis, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn. The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and – back in 1935 – Captain Blood all champion a bold Englishman opposing European tyranny.
The least remembered of this cycle (and the penultimate Curtiz-Flynn collaboration), Santa Fe Trail (1940) is also the strangest. While the parallels between its setting (largely Kansas in the late 1850s) and contemporary Europe are less obvious than those offered by (say) the Elizabethan world of The Sea Hawk, Santa Fe Trail is overtly – sometimes heavy-handedly – about extremism, the dangers of charismatic leaders, and the choice between maintaining order and doing the risky right thing.
This drags it into some awkward places, where it’s never quite clear whether the message has got lost in the demands of commercial movie-making or was simply incoherent in the first place. However, one point to be sure of is that (despite its damnation around the web as “Griffith-level apologia” and “reactionary trash”) it is not a racist movie, at least no more than any mainstream Hollywood product of the time, its highly stereotyped black characters notwithstanding.
The abolitionist John Brown, played by Raymond Massey, is the villain of the piece not because he wants to free the slaves, but because he threatens the stability of the Union in so doing; as Olivia de Havilland says to Massey’s son, “his reasons may be right. They may even be great and good reasons. But what your father is doing is wrong.”
To suggest that the freeing of the slaves is being equated with Nazi Germany’s evils, and therefore Massey/Brown with Hitler, is absurd; Curtiz and Wallis (soon to collaborate on Casablanca) were both Eastern European Jews themselves and cannot have believed this. The idea is further undermined by Massey/Brown’s clear resemblance to the early Hollywood image of a Jew, and he even compares himself to King David. (The real Brown was, of course, not Jewish, although given the movie’s merry departure from historical accuracy, this might not have perturbed its makers much.)
Brown/Massey’s sin is that he threatens the peace, and in a non-democratic manner. Put another way, the slaves are not the point; Brown is. And if it says something about 1940s perspectives that the black characters (they’re hardly even characters, more like props) could be reduced to stereotypes, it also says something about our obsessions that we tend to assume the movie must be about them, despite their minimal presence and (at best) indirect relevance. It would, in fact, be effectively the same film if we never once saw a single black character on-screen.
But it may not be wise to take the 1940s European parallels too far, or assume that they are completely consistent. Indeed, Santa Fe Trail – via its portrayal of Brown’s abolitionist crusade – seems to be sending two, partially contradictory, messages: a warning about the dangers of extremism, but also a caution against becoming too involved in righting wrongs. De Havilland’s comment encapsulates this, as does the response of cavalryman Flynn to his fellow officer George Custer (Ronald Reagan), when the latter defends Brown’s ideas: “It isn’t,” Flynn says, “our job to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.”
So is it isolationist, or anti-fascist, or both? The analogy at the heart of the movie is confused and confusing. Brown seems, perhaps, to represent both fascism and the struggle against fascism (in his attempts to free the slaves, which may be worthy but are not “our” business).
Despite that (or perhaps because of it; we don’t know whether to admire or fear him), he is by far the most magnetic character in a film where most are nearly as stereotypical as the big-eyed, yes-massa blacks. Massey’s performance is the only one that grabs us; de Havilland does show she is capable of more than Santa Fe Trail permits her, and Gene Reynolds (who became a significant TV producer, director, and writer) is convincing as Brown’s son, but Flynn and Reagan are almost characterless.
Brown’s never-wavering seriousness and his baleful, blazing eyes – in one scene so white that his skin must have been darkened, a bizarre effect that could come from a film of thirty years earlier – provide a suitably prophetic air to the man who calls himself “the sword of Jehovah”; his ramrod-straight posture makes him seem far taller than more ordinary mortals, perhaps implicitly the one who will remain towering in history, although in fact he only had an inch or so on Flynn and Reagan.
Toward the end of the movie we see the intolerance to which his originally well-motivated zealousness has led him (“Stupid cattle!,” he says of the people of Harper’s Ferry, “can’t they understand we’re here on a righteous cause?”); and by the time he is hanged (after, inevitably, comparing his betrayer to Judas), he has become fully messianic, pronouncing on the gallows that “they know not what they do.”
Flynn, watching the hanging, has a rare moment of insight when he observes that Brown “was born for this.” Martyrdom suits Brown’s purpose, and it is in this extremism that he is ultimately un-American. His cause may be morally right but his attempt to impose it is not; the movie clearly prefers the way that Flynn (a Southerner) and Reagan/Custer (a Northerner) simply agree to disagree, and ride on together. This is a more subtle point than one of slavery versus abolitionism, and probably the reason that Santa Fe Trail is so widely misunderstood, even though the movie returns to the idea again and again: it is taking issue with the means of reform, not the end.
When Brown is not in a scene, Santa Fe Trail tends to be dramatically flaccid. Many of the lead characters, including, of course, Brown and Custer as well as the Flynn and de Havilland roles, existed; but the events are largely fictional. The actual Santa Fe Trail, and the railroad to New Mexico with which the main action begins and ends (after a prelude with Flynn and Reagan at West Point) are barely relevant; the title may have been contrived to suggest a more conventional western.
The screenplay by Robert Buckner (who worked on several Flynn movies) is often weak, with clunky expository dialogue and a wordy, philosophical Flynn-Massey conversation that stops the action stone dead. (Matters aren’t helped by the poorly synchronized dubbing, possibly a result of the experimental dual-channel Vitasound system used in Santa Fe Trail, one of only two films where it was employed. This improves around a quarter of an hour before the end, leading one to wonder if a different sound setup was used for the final reels.)
Many scenes exist merely to set up, or illustrate, the Brown situation: a too-tidy barrack-room fight at West Point is only a pretext to assign Flynn and Reagan to the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth; the plight of a black family refused seating on a train (otherwise populated by a medley of stock characters straight from Stagecoach) is a heavy-handed reminder that it’s still the bad old days.
The Flynn-de Havilland romance is desultory – hatred is a much stronger motivator than love in Santa Fe Trail (and indeed off-screen they were united in their dislike for Curtiz). Even so, Reagan’s rivalry for her hand does provide some of the movie’s more successful humor, less jarring than the two comic-relief civilians enlisted into the cavalry’s hunt for Brown (Alan Hale and Guinn Williams). There are, as well, some hints that the de Havilland role might at one point in the writing of Santa Fe Trail have been deeper. Her commitment to the cause is ambiguous; she doesn’t want Brown’s son to reveal where his father is hiding, but even so, when he does she still tells Flynn.
More impactful are Curtiz’s direction, along with the cinematography by his frequent collaborator Sol Polito and the editing by Warners’ cutting-room star George Amy (their contributions are not always easily disentangled; in particular, Curtiz was well-known for shooting from multiple angles and leaving much to the editing stage). While it is largely naturalistic, with unfussy composition, realistic background activity, and inanimate objects foregrounded to emphasize the physicality of events, there are exceptions: for example, in a shot just after Flynn and de Havilland have their first kiss, she stands precisely equidistant between him and Reagan. If this is not particularly subtle, it is unusual in the context of the movie, as evidence of careful visual construction being allowed to override messier realism.
Similarly striking are the contrasts that Curtiz, Polito, and Amy draw between order and chaos (themselves, of course, the two extremes where the movie positions Flynn/Reagan and Brown, as well as the two poles of the classical western). Order is represented, more than once, by the disciplined lines of soldiers; at West Point they are juxtaposed with the physical unpredictability of the cavalry’s horses; once we’re at Fort Leavenworth, the rigid parade-ground rows are contrasted with the disorder of the town (and the train journey that preceded it), the busier sets and thicker crowds.
Indeed, an interesting scene at Leavenworth combines these motifs. As an officer gives Flynn his first orders for action, the shot is filmed from beneath a horse’s head, through the reins; the unusual angle, which – like the use of objects to frame people – is very characteristic of Curtiz, allows us to see chaos (the horse) interrupting the organized (soldiers), and foreshadows the disorder of confrontation with the enemy.
Curtiz was a horse-owner himself, and the animals are pervasive in Santa Fe Trail; although none is personalized, collectively they are unusually prominent in many scenes. In Palmyra, for example, the soldiers’ identity is revealed not by the slip of speech, familiar face, or other human giveaway that many writers would have employed, but when a horse is recognized as belonging to the army.
Outside the barber’s shop in the same town, a man comments that “Kansas is all right for men and dogs, but it’s pretty hard on women and horses”; in another shot, exactly half the frame is occupied by a horse and half by de Havilland. Are the pair an either-or choice (disordered life on the open range versus ordered marriage) or complementary, both representing wildness of a different kind (the instinctive horse, the “irrational” female)?
The preoccupation with order and disorder reaches its apogee in the very late scene of Brown’s hanging: the lines of men and the right angles of the gallows are so stark that they appear to represent the established structure’s victory over the upheaval threatened by Brown. In another composition the camera peers through the steps to the gallows, shooting from low down and behind; it’s as if we’ve snuck up next to them to spy on the momentous event, and it’s very reminiscent of the horse’s reins in the scene where the hunt for the abolitionist began.
This isn’t to say, though, that Santa Fe Trail is some kind of experiment in expressionist cinematography. There’s plenty of good solid Hollywood action work too: perhaps most notably an early encounter between Flynn’s men and Brown’s followers, where the range of feelings and relationships – hostility, alliance, uncertainty – among the members of these groups is made clear in the variety of ways they’re positioned and shot, building up a tension that is soon relieved by an exciting chase sequence. There’s a fine night-time battle around the barn at Palmyra, and later a much larger-scale, set-piece conflict at Harper’s Ferry, with more participants over a wide area, filmed in daylight and rapidly cut, resembling a war movie.
And then, of course, there’s Max Steiner’s score. If it doesn’t have the grandeur of, say, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s for The Sea Hawk, it’s a noble example of the art of Steiner, who was almost his equal.
As usual in his work, leitmotif is pervasive: “John Brown’s Body” for Brown, naturally, but also (bizarrely enough) the opening notes of “Ten Green Bottles” as one of several themes for the cavalry. This – after research – I can only put down to the melody taking Steiner’s fancy: despite his fondness for musical allusion, there seems no known link between the children’s song and the nineteenth-century U.S. army.
By the end, in any case, this is the triumphant music element, although Brown’s hanging is followed – in another of the movie’s ambiguities – by a decidedly jolly rendition of his motif: is this Steiner saying that, like the railroad we’re now seeing on-screen, his soul is indeed marching on?
Less successful, perhaps, is the surreal explosion of a crowd – complete with a band conveniently waiting on a nearby wagon – into “Along the Santa Fe,” and sometimes Steiner’s precise fit of music to on-screen action can also seem intrusively contrived (e.g., the high glissando strings when a minor character scratches at chiggers). His score is much more expressive when it’s not tied to this click-track technique and isn’t so directly descriptive: for example, the uneasy sinuous strings as the mystery of Brown’s location grows, or the thrillingly energetic accompaniment to the final battle, or a long through-composed passage accompanying the first scenes in the town of Fort Leavenworth, European in flavor but with a touch of Copland, capturing the bustle and jumble of personalities.
If the music and cinematography put Santa Fe Trail in the same class as Curtiz’s better-known movies, however, it is still Massey’s John Brown who looms in the memory, and the sense of a message that overwhelms the viewer. Yet where the film either fails, or is adeptly diplomatic, is in the ambiguity of that message.
At times it seems to be arguing directly for neutrality: one citizen of a town that Brown has just burned nevertheless tells Flynn adamantly that “this is our fight. We don’t want you or nobody else to finish it.” Elsewhere it casts hints in another direction: when president-to-be Lincoln speaks at a West Point ceremony near the beginning, his reference to “defense of the rights of man” is clearly a call to activism (although if we leave aside our knowledge of the historical Lincoln, the phrase could be understood to refer to slaves or slave-owners).
What is unarguable is that Santa Fe Trail is trying to deliver a warning, whether it’s a caution against involvement or a recognition of necessary sacrifices ahead. Moral positions require action to give them force, it insists. “Does just saying so make us free?” a liberated slave asks Brown; “one day the words will turn into guns,” de Havilland predicts. As things developed for the world in the early 1940s, and for black Americans over several decades following, they were both right to worry.
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Santa Fe Trail is available on Amazon Prime, in full on YouTube, and on DVD and Blu-Ray. Unless otherwise indicated (or obvious), all images are screenshots from the DVD, posted under the fair use provisions of copyright law.