We’re back again for the month of March to look at the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Rushin’ Ballet (1937)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 6 (1936-1938) from ClassicFlix)
(Length: 10 minutes, 54 seconds)
When Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) and Porky (Eugene Lee) run afoul of bullies Butch (Tommy Bond) and Woim (Sidney Kibrick), they turn to Spanky (George McFarland) and Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) for help. However, even those two aren’t enough against the bullies, so they take refuge in a dance studio (where a recital is currently going on). This was yet another fun one, with much of the humor revolving around Spanky and Alfalfa trying to keep out of trouble with the bullies (Alfalfa in particular). The whole “dance” with the two boys dressed up to look like girls is hilarious, especially when the bullies get in on the act. I enjoyed this one, and would certainly gladly come back to it!
And Now For The Main Feature…
It’s 1854, and a bunch of young cadets at West Point Military Academy are getting ready to graduate. However, one of them, Carl Rader (Van Heflin), instigates a brawl with some of the others because he is distributing anti-slavery pamphlets from John Brown (Raymond Massey). As a result, he is dishonorably discharged. Meanwhile, two of his classmates, J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) graduate, and are assigned to Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory. On the train ride there, Jeb and George are joined by Cyrus Holliday (Henry O’Neill), who is in charge of building the railroad through the territory, and his daughter Kit Carson (Olivia de Havilland). Along the way, the two soldiers see how John Brown is causing trouble in the territory, as one of his men attempted to smuggle some slaves to safety via the train, with violence resulting. Once in Kansas, the two soldiers are given a detail in which they are supposed to deliver a wagonload of Bibles. They run into John Brown and a bunch of his men (including Carl Rader), who take the crates of “Bibles” (which turn out to be crates of guns), although the soldiers are able to recover some of them and capture one of John Brown’s sons, Jason (Gene Reynolds). Jason has been mortally wounded, but, since he doesn’t really believe in his father’s cause (or rather, the violence behind it), he manages to reveal the location of his father’s hideout in Palmyra before he dies. Jeb rides into the town of Palmyra disguised, but some of John Brown’s men quickly figure it out and capture him. Before they are able to hang him, George rides in with the cavalry, chasing off John Brown and his men. They believe John Brown to no longer be a threat, and both Jeb and George are sent back to Washington D.C. At a party, Jeb proposes to Kit, but the party is quickly interrupted by Carl Rader, who has decided to turn on John Brown (since there is a reward for his capture and John Brown has refused to pay him what he had promised). So the troops are mustered and sent to the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Will they be able to stop John Brown’s plans for war, or will his crusade win out?
After the success of the Errol Flynn and Oliva de Havilland Western Dodge City (1939) (not to mention all the other films that the two stars had previously made as a team), Santa Fe Trail (1940) was put together to take advantage of their popularity. Various other stars were associated with the project at one time or another, with Wayne Morris at one point set to star as George Armstrong Custer. However, Ronald Reagan had scored in Knute Rockne, All-American (1940) and was hastily brought in to portray Custer. Raymond Massey was cast in the part of John Brown (a part he would later play again in the 1955 film Seven Angry Men). Some of the film was shot on location in places like the Lasky Movie Ranch (in western San Fernando Valley, California) and the Sierra Railroad (Tuolumne County, California). The film turned out to be a big hit, and one of the highest grossing films for that year.
I will readily admit that Santa Fe Trail was a new film for me, and I certainly enjoyed it. Errol Flynn was the biggest reason that I had wanted to see it, and he certainly makes the film work. While he spends most of the film in uniform, his brief moments in more traditional western garb still work well (and he seems much more at ease than he was in the previous year’s Dodge City). I would also say that future U.S. President Ronald Reagan performs admirably as Custer. Admittedly, it’s a rather thankless role, since he’s the third part of the film’s main love triangle, and the chemistry between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland makes it obvious that his character doesn’t have a chance with her (except in his own mind). As a pair of cowboys who decide to join the army just to fight John Brown, Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams provide much of the comic relief throughout the film. I would say that the film is at its best during some of its big fight/chase scenes, like the chase when John Brown first gets his guns, the fight at Palmyra and the final battle at Harper’s Ferry. It’s not the most historically accurate film (with J.E.B. Stuart being the only person in the film that actually graduated from West Point in 1954, for example), and the film’s treatment of some of its subject matter with regards to slavery in the American South seems a little too much like its trying to sit on the fence (and certainly, the African-American characters lean way too hard into stereotypes). Still, it provided good entertainment through laughter and excitement, so I would certainly recommend giving it a chance (at least, if you can get past the issues I mentioned)!
What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2021) with… Santa Fe Trail (1940)
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection, featuring a master from a 4K scan of the nitrate preservation elements. As usual for a Warner Archive release, this film looks fantastic, with all the details coming through clearly, and the image itself cleaned up of all dirt and debris. This is particularly impressive since the film fell into the public domain a long time ago, which has meant many, many releases of this film (many of them not good quality). As I said, this Warner Archive Blu-ray looks great, and is the best way to see this film!
Film Length: 1 hour, 50 minutes
My Rating: 7/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
The Sea Hawk (1940) – Errol Flynn – Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
Dodge City (1939) – Olivia de Havilland – Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
Van Heflin – Black Widow (1954)
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