Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Buckner

I’ve talked a few times about both the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn connection, as well as the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland connection. This is the third western in this marathon that features Flynn and Curtiz working together, the second with de Havilland as the co-star. The team is pretty consistent in terms of the quality of its output. While The Adventures of Robin Hood remains, and likely will forever, the zenith of this team’s work together, each time I’ve had the opportunity to spend time within a new story with these great filmmakers, I have had a great time. Flynn’s on screen presence is undeniable. However, with Santa Fe Trail, I fear I may have finally found a Curtiz/Flynn collaboration that I didn’t much care for. Even with the intrigue of some of the bigger names from the Civil War at play in this film, Santa Fe Trail just falls rather flat.

It’s the late 1850s, just prior to the American Civil War, and a slew of well-known generals from that war are graduating from West point under Colonel Robert E. Lee. Among them is Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn), a southern sympathizer who doesn’t take well to the political preaching of fellow classmate Rader (Van Heflin). Following a fight, Rader is expelled and Stuart, along with good friend George Custer (Ronald Reagan) are assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas after graduation to help control the staunch abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey) and his posse from causing terror in the Kansas territory. Stuart meets and falls in love with a classmate’s sister (Olivia de Havilland), and soon finds himself once again at odds with Rader and Brown.

The first issue I have with the film, and it should be no surprise given my background, is the tone. This film, while not historically accurate, takes great liberties with how it presents its characters, and I found it quite odd at times. I am all for fudging the dates and relationships of Custer and Stuart (they weren’t classmates or acquaintances). It makes for a more compelling story to include these two well known figures together. Rather, what struck me was the representation of slavery and both its supporter and detractors. John Brown was a man who fought against slavery, and did so quite violently at times. History paints him as much a hero as a villain. I stand somewhere in between, given his brutal tactics. This film treats him as a villain, with Flynn and Reagan as Stuart and Custer, southern gentlemen who claim slavery will come to an end “in due time” as the protagonists.

The entire presentation of this particular group of characters felt very odd to me. Now, Raymond Massey was good as a bit evil and off kilter John Brown. Flynn, de Havilland, Reagan, they were all fine here too, though I felt the screenplay limited their characters from being truly memorable. The whole procedure suffers from being forgettable. It’s a film that comes and goes without any real signature moments, nothing to take from it all. Even the end feels very forced and tacked on, bringing into the picture Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry. It feels so much like a necessity within telling this story that Curtiz and company had no other choice, even if it’s an intrusion into the Kansas story. The whole film is uneven from top to bottom, and perhaps most shocking is Flynn’s level of charisma, which feels far lessened from his previous efforts.

Also tacked on is the romance between Flynn and de Havilland’s characters. Once again it feels like a prerequisite with the pair being so well known as common co-stars. This is a film that could have done much better with a stronger, more focused script, and tighter direction behind the camera. It’s not a total disaster, as it is watchable. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland tend to have that effect, but it is otherwise so bland and nondescript in both its intent and delivery that I am sure it will be a film that ranks among the lower end of the spectrum in this marathon when all is said and done. At least we still have Dodge CityVirginia City, and of course the everlasting classic cinema of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

** 1/2 – Average

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