“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner in his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun. It’s an overused quote but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether for an individual or a nation, the past always hovers somewhere above, a reminder either of previous successes or failures. Michael Curtiz’s 1940 “Santa Fe Trail” is an uneasy celebration of American history and values, and is a combination of actual history and fiction, focusing on the period right before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The year is 1854, and the graduating class of West Point Military Academy are eager to begin a new phase of their lives. They come from various parts of America, and not all share the same views on slavery. Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) is a Southerner who thinks slavery should resolve on its own without any need for abolitionist tactics. George Custer (Ronald Reagan) of Ohio is of the mindset that something needs to be done to abolish slavery but not the violent strategies of abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey). Another West Point classmate, Carl Rader (Van Heflin) has been mesmerized by John Brown’s pamphlets and instigates a fight with Jeb Stuart.
The fight among almost graduated cadets gets every single one of them in trouble. Rader is dishonorably discharged for bringing treasonous material into the Academy since a cadet ought not have any political or ideological opinion; and others, like Jeb and Custer are assigned to the most dangerous territory: Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory—a place where John Brown’s reign of terror has dominated the land.
Jeb and Custer are happy to be assigned to such a place, however, as both are eager to prove their worth. Naturally, no military story of heroism would be complete without a woman, and “Santa Fe Trail” is no exception to this rule. Enter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of Cyrus K. Holliday, the man responsible for bringing the railroad into Kansas. (Although Cyrus K. Holliday did indeed exist, and did have daughters, none of them was named after Kit Carson, the American frontiersman.)
Naturally, both Jeb and Custer do their best to woo Kit, but the love story in this charming triangle is of secondary importance. What matters is the capture of John Brown. Massey plays Brown as a fanatic, and the only one who is sympathetic to his cause is Reagan’s Custer. With enough make-up to make him look frightening, Massey’s John Brown is mostly portrayed as a madman, whose vision of slavery abolition should happen by any means necessary. On many occasions, Massey’s eyes bulge out during his speeches. Yet there are also moments of confusion and reflection.
Two of Brown’s sons die in the film, but Brown appears not to be moved by these deaths in the normal way of a father. As his certain defeat is coming, he tells the blacks working with him to scatter, going wherever they wish to go. They are confused by this direction, however: Where should they go? What exactly will they do now that they are free? Brown tells them that now they have to fend for themselves because that is the mark of a free person.
“Santa Fe Trail” is a film that offers a particular interpretation of John Brown and abolition. It’s not exactly pro-slavery but it is definitely more favorable to the South than today’s usual telling. Reagan’s character serves as a kind of informal conscience or one small shred of morality, pointing to the immorality of slavery.
Although the film takes a number of historical liberties, the purpose of “Santa Fe Trail” was not to give a perfect account of historical events so much as to offer an amalgam of events telling an important part of the story of America. Although Reagan had no control over the script or the production, he was glad to be part of a project that aimed to both educate and entertain. According to Stephen Vaughn in his book, Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics, “Warner Bros. tried to promote the movie among schoolchildren by encouraging an essay contest in which Stuart and Brown held an imaginary conversation,” discussing whether Brown’s means justified the end, or whether it is the law and order that ought to be followed in order to achieve desired results.
“Santa Fe Trail” is packed with great action scenes as well as the intensity of internal conflicts. Hefflin’s Rader, in particular, shows a great deal of depth. Rader, who is initially seen as the traitor for choosing to work for John Brown’s cause, realizes at some point that Brown is not only a madman, but a madman who has not paid Rader a penny for his work. It’s not clear whether Rader is just a self-serving man, loyal only to his own personal cause, or if he’s driven by something bigger than himself.
Many Westerns (and “Santa Fe Trail” straddles the line between Western and action film) engage in the creation of an American mythology. This is not to assert something negative about American cinema or history, as many anti-American ideologues like to suggest. Rather, a bigger story is at play here–one that has nothing to do with historical accuracy or even human failures. In the case of “Santa Fe Trail,” we witness a definite romanticization of events, but not for the purposes of ideology. Such films reflect an aspect of patriotism that was meant to arouse feelings of appreciation for America in all of her complexity. It offered an appreciation of the fact that questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and patriotism are always fraught with real difficulty and real human failings. Understanding these facts makes it difficult to expect a tidy ending or pat explanation and it ought to prevent the arrogance of presentism, as well.
While it may appear that things have ended neatly in the film, with John Brown at the end of a noose, even a film that elevates the American story must leave a sense of uneasy victory.