Friday, November 28, 2008

Santa Fe Trail, 1940

Alternate blog post title: Whiskey Tango Hotel Foxtrot Hotel?!

First, I should mention that although the liner notes on the box said this movie was supposed to be The Santa Fe Trail, a 1930 movie starring Richard Arlen, it is not. The movie on the disc is actually Santa Fe Trail, a 1940 movie starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan. John Litel is also in the credits, but he had only a small role and I was not able to spot him.

Now that that's out of the way, I can start off by saying this movie has almost nothing at all to do with "the Santa Fe Trail," and is actually an excremental pile of historical revisionism covering the alleged activities of abolitionist John Brown and the "heroes" who opposed him during the years between 1854 and 1859.

Too harsh? Well, as I began watching it, I kept thinking, wtf?! Wtff?! Why? Who? What was the purpose behind creating an anti-abolitionist movie in 1940? I hopped onto imdb to check out some of the comments there. I kept going through comment after comment, thinking, what the hell is wrong these people?
What makes this film a remarkable document is its unflinching, for the Hollywood of the 1940s, portrayal of the evil of slavery, the pain of blacks ensnared in its web...

Bull. The blacks in this film are portrayed as meaningless, cartoonish caricatures of human beings. At one point, a black couple even states that:

Woman: Ol' John Brown say he gon' give us freedom, but [unintelligible], if this here Kansas is freedom, then I ain't got no use for it, no sir!

Man: Me neither, I just want to get back home to Texas, and set 'til kingdom come!
Another commenter said:
A powerful movie too interested in the truth to take sides.
Bull, and again I say: bull. The abolitionists are repeatedly portrayed as insane, evil, opportunistic @ssh*les, while the pro-slavery and (cough) "neutral" people are portrayed as the reasonable, gallant and heroic good guys.

Also there were a couple of nameless pipe-smoking extras in the railroad car scene.

For another example of how this movie is skewed, I offer the following segue caption.

In context, it is clear that this caption is referring to Palmyra, Kansas as "the cancer of Kansas" because it is a hotbed of abolitionist fervor "and the western end of the underground railroad for slaves."

But finally, after several comments that seemed to apologize (as in, explain away) the movie, I came to a comment that echoed my own feelings, so I'll just quote it here in full.
I COULD call this "a typical rousing Hollywood actioner" - but I won't. This is an insidious movie that pollutes History even more than normal Hollywood fare. It had nothing to do with "The Santa Fe Trail", but dealt with abolitionist John Brown from Kansas to Harpers Ferry in the years before the Civil War, and the reaction of West Point officers to him. So what's wrong with it? It is nothing but pro-Slaveholder anti-black propaganda. 1. Atrocities by pro-slavery forces in Kansas were never depicted, just those by Brown. 2. Brown was never shown treating blacks with respect and as equals. As he always did. 3. Blacks were only depicted as shiftless, helpless stereotypes. 4. One third of Brown's fighters at Harpers Ferry were black - none were depicted in the movie. 5. The assault against Brown at Harpers was preposterous - about six times the size of the actual fight. 6. West Point cadets were shown as mostly pro-slavery, and abolitionist cadets were depicted as crackpots and the cause of the Civil War. 7. John Brown's famous and magnificent speech before the Court was not shown. 8. John Brown was denounced as a "traitor" - by the Robert E Lee character who would soon renounce his West Point oath and fight against the United States - UNlike many other Virginia officers. I could go on. But this movie should only be shown in a classroom as an example of propaganda and deceit.
Yes, propaganda and deceit. And it is so overt that I kept thinking someone must have somehow made it in 1860. The propaganda and deceit are so obvious, it is just bizarre. And again I must ask: why?

I, John Brown, shall be the sword of Jehovah!

Raymond Massey does a stupendous and totally over-the-top job as John Brown, who is portrayed as principled and idealistic, but still essentially 150% batsh*t evil crazy.

Comedy is sometimes thrown in, lurchingly, like ramming a truck down a gear when you're still going too fast. Alan Hale (who to me will always be Skipper's Dad) and some other guy provide the comic relief.

You think it's gonna be hard chewin', Tex?
Well, I don't know. I still gotta hunch we shoulda skinned it first.
We took the horns off of it, didn't we?

Whew, all that and I still haven't given a plot synopsis. Okay, to begin with, it operates under the fictional premise that Jeb Stewart (Errol Flynn), George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet and George Pickett all graduated together from West Point in 1854 and were all the very best of friends. They all get posted to Leavenworth, Kansas after graduation and Stewart and Custer lead a guard for a cargo wagon train that's supposed to be going to Santa Fe (thus they spend about 15 minutes on the "Santa Fe Trail"). The journey gets derailed quickly when John Brown, operating under an alias, stops them to get his crates of Bibles. While unloading the crates, it is discovered that they are actually rifles. This is about the only thing they got almost right.

The rifles that were smuggled to abolitionists in the Kansas territory--disguised as crates of Bibles--in the years before the Civil War were mostly Sharps rifles. But based on my own research (and of course I could be wrong), the rifles in this movie appear to be Model 1869 carbines, which were, you know, not introduced until around 1869. I believe the rifles in question were more likely to be the Model 1852, which is conspicuously different from the 1869 in that it has a shorter forearm and no barrel band. But that's only a minor quibble, really. Nothing like having all the famous generals of the Civil War starting out as a group of BFFs.

When it comes to the handguns, however, I must cry foul. This is too obvious to let slide, and I cannot let it stand.

During this period, the Army should have been using the Colt Army revolver, which was a cap-and-ball gun, had a non-fluted cylinder, and no topstrap. The handguns used in this movie are obviously Colt Peacemakers, which did not see the light of day until 1872. You poinked the pooch, folks. I don't care what the prop department had. I could give them extra credit for having Stewart run out of ammo after 5 shots, but then I would just have to take it away because the barn he was sheltering in also held a wagon load of smuggled revolvers (a time-traveling wagon, apparently, since the revolvers were all from at least 13 years in the future), that were being smuggled already loaded! How conveeeenient!

As far as I could tell, these were the only two guns used in this movie, except for a couple of cannons.

There is also a half-hearted attempt at a friendly love triangle with Stewart and Custer vying for Kit Carson Holliday (De Havilland), but it's so superfluous amidst all the sh*t-slinging that it's hardly worth mentioning.

The climactic battle scene is, I must admit, quite impressive and very well coreographed, with some pretty good special effects for the time, but of course, quite inaccurate. John Brown is captured and in the movie gives this fictional speech before being hanged.

I am only walking as God foreordained I should walk. All my actions, even the folly leading to this disaster were decreed to happen long ages before this world began. But I cannot remember a night so dark as to have hindered the coming days, or a storm so furious as to prevent the return of warm sunshine in the country at peace. I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I let them hang me. I forgive them and may God forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Perhaps he gave some kind of speech on the gallows, perhaps not. History doesn't record it. But for his last docmented speech, go here. Here is an excerpt.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
And then the movie immediately jumps to the completely gratutious 30-second wedding ceremony of Stewart and Holliday. Surprise! Happy ending after all!

So, should you watch this movie? Yes, but only once. But be sure to educate yourself first on what really happened during those years, and pay attention to everything that's wrong.

And then, when it's finished, ask yourself: What movies from the early 2000s will people be watching in 2060 and thinking: Good God, did those people really believe the things they're saying?! What a load of cr*p!

Source: Western Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection
Runtime: 110 minutes
Amazon Search: Santa Fe Trail


  1. Raymond Massey...and yes, I could never figure out what the producers of that movie were thinking...

    The community I live in was an abolitionist hub--I live less than a mile from the tannery house John Brown built and lived in for several years, and we have a street named after his father, Owen Brown, acknowledged as the Underground RR "stationmaster," and who is buried in an old cemetery here.

  2. Good job on this one for sure. I'm a JB biographer. Santa Fe Trail is probably one of the worst contributors to the pop culture notion of Brown as a madman and criminal. The screenplay writer was from Virginia and believed that if people like Brown had not arisen, the Civil War could have been avoided. Your observations are very helpful. We've yet to have a decent portrayal of Brown in cinema. By the way, Malcolm X probably saw Santa Fe Trail as a teenager. He later said he saw a movie about Brown that made him look like a "nut."

  3. Louis: thanks for that information. I thought that someone involved with making this movie had to have an agenda, but I couldn't find any details like that online.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. As a person who has studied and written about John Brown and teach a class on John Brown, I actually use the movie "Santa Fe Trail" and ask students to pick out the historically inaccurate information. For instance, his son Frederick, not Jason, was killed in Kansas. Robert E. Lee (who had a mustache but no beard and was not in uniform) came to Harpers Ferry on the train, not on horseback. The engine house in the movie is at the top of a big hill (though actually it was at the lowest point in town) -- a part they got right in the movie because in 1940 the engine house was at the top of the hill on the campus of Storer College. There are other errors, some of which have already been discussed. 2009 by the way is the 150th anniversary of the raid. Sixty plus events are planned. See .
    Bob O'Connor, author, "The Perfect Steel Trap Harpers Ferry 1859"

  5. Mr. O'Connor: Thank you for the comment and that additional information.