Santa Fe Trail

(1940) Directed by Michael Curtiz

THIS WARNER BROTHERS HORSE opera is full of historical inaccuracies. When it opened, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted that “for anyone who has the slightest regard for the spirit— not to mention the facts—of American history, it will prove exceedingly annoying.”

The story begins at West Point in 1854 with a merry band of brothers about to graduate. They include J.E.B. Stuart (who did graduate that year) and his best buddy George A. Custer (actually Class of 1861, and certainly no buddy of Stuart’s), James Longstreet (1842), George Pickett (1846), John Bell Hood (1853) and Phil Sheridan (1853). Superintendent Robert E. Lee (Moroni Olsen) sends them off to Fort Laramie in soon-to-be Bleeding Kansas, the closest any of them get to Santa Fe.

When not heroically trying to stop the bloodletting between Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers, Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (can you believe Ronald Reagan?) court the requisite love interest, Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland). But the real star is Raymond Massey, who gives a truly over-the-top performance as the crazed, messianic zealot John Brown.

While cavorting all over the prairie after Brown, Stuart is captured by the abolitionist (never happened) but escapes. Brown and his band escape, too, and head east for their rendezvous with destiny. So do our heroes. They meet again at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. In a wildly inaccurate rendering of the siege of Brown’s raiders, Lee reappears and leads a dismounted cavalry unit (they were actually U.S. Marines) in a charge to capture Public Enemy No. 1 and preserve justice and tranquility in the land—at least for a while.

The value of this film lies in its propagandist subtext. In 1940, war raged in Europe and Asia, and many believed America would soon enter the fight. By portraying the North (Custer) and the South (Stuart) as being united against a common enemy (Brown), the movie reminds viewers that when faced with consummate evil, political differences can be overcome to achieve victory.


Originally published in the May 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here