SANTE FE TRAIL—shamelessly distorted history keynotes this 1940 Hollywood account of John Brown and ‘Jeb’ Stuart as their paths crisscrossed, culminating in Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, one of the acts that sparked the Civil War.
The movie has more to do with the trail to Sunset & Vine than it does any path to New Mexico: it’s just an exercise in studio star-flexing (Errol Flynn & Olivia De Havilland in their 7th match-up), directorial flair (mad Hungarian Michael Curtiz on the megaphone) and rampant imagination courtesy of screenwriter Robert Buckner: “I don’t give a damn about strict historical accuracy if it hamstrings the story”, a movie being “eight parts entertainment to two parts facts.”
Getting past the pure Olden Days movie fiction of it all—the suckup to Dixie audiences, the cliched and offensive ‘Negro’ stereotypes, the forced comic relief, unaffecting romantic nonsense and Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer (how did either of them get mixed up in this?)—look past the puckey and there is some effective black & white camera work from ace Sol Polito, the fun of early Van Heflin as a slimy turncoat, the flashing intensity of Raymond Massey as a fanatical Brown, and a wild battle that wraps it up, making the 1859 skirmish at Harper’s Ferry look as lethal as Gettysburg. *
Most of the good stuff is in the last section of the 110 minutes. The $1,000,000 outing was a smash hit, taking in nearly $5,000,000 and briefly taking the minds of nervous patrons off events in Europe. With Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Guinn Williams, Gene Reynolds, Ward Bond, John Litel, Joseph Sawyer and Russell Simpson.
* A granddaughter of Brown was so incensed by the skewed portrait of her fiery ancestor that she filed suit in 31 states against Warner Brothers. Nothing came of it but more publicity. Massey played Brown again, somewhat less berserk, in 1955’s Seven Angry Men.