Santa Fe Trail: Curtiz’s Fictionalized Western, Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Seventh Teaming

Michael Curtiz directed the action Western Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in their seventh collaboration.

Written by Robert Buckner, the film deals with the abolitionist John Brown and his campaign against slavery prior to the Civil War.

In a romantic subplot, J. E. B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer compete for the attention of Kit Carson Holliday.

One of the top-grossing films of the year, Santa Fe Trail earned a solid profit of $1.5 million, though as expected, it was more popular domestically, where it grossed $1.8 million.

The tale begin at West Point Military Academy in 1854, when cadet Carl Rader (Van Heflin), an agent of John Brown, is dishonorably discharged for his anti-slavery pamphlets. Classmates Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) become second lieutenants and are posted to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, for a dangerous duty.

On their way to Kansas, Custer and Stuart meet Cyrus K. Holliday, in charge of building the railroad to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and his daughter Kit (Olivia de Havilland), with whom both officers fall in love.

The Kansas Territory is war-torn, a victim of John Brown’s (Raymond Massey) crusade against slavery.

Rader enlists as a mercenary in Brown’s army, which terrorizes the countryside. During Brown’s attack on a freight wagon under the protection of U.S. Army, Stuart and Custer capture Brown’s injured son Jason (Gene Reynolds).  Before he dies, Jason informs them about his father’s hideout.

Stuart, disguised, rides into Palmyra, the center of the Underground Railroad, but Brown’s men spot his horse’s army brand, and he is captured.  Attempting to escape, Stuart is trapped in burning barn but is saved as Custer leads the cavalry to the rescue, driving Brown into seclusion.

Cut to 1859, when Stuart and Custer, believing that Brown’s force has been broken, are back in Washington, D.C. However, it turns out Brown is planning to reignite war by raiding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

When Brown refuses to pay Rader for his services, the latter alerts Stuart of Brown’s plans. The troops arrive just in time to crush the rebellion, and Brown is tried for treason and hanged.

The movie ends happily, with the marriage of Stuart and Kit.

This film, never meant to be an accurate account, takes substantial liberties with the historical facts. For example, Stuart and Custer did not attend West Point at the same time and were never personally acquainted. Stuart graduated from West Point in 1854 and Custer graduated in 1861.

Cast:

Errol Flynn as James “Jeb” Stuart
Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Holliday
Raymond Massey as John Brown
Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer
Alan Hale as Tex Bell
William Lundigan as Bob Holliday
Van Heflin as Carl Rader
Gene Reynolds as Jason Brown
Henry O’Neill as Cyrus K. Holliday
Guinn Williams as Windy Brody
Alan Baxter as Oliver Brown
Moroni Olsen as Robert E. Lee
Ward Bond as Townley
Erville Alderson as Jefferson Davis
David Bruce as Phil Sheridan

Credits:

Produced and distributed by Warner Bros.

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by Robert Buckner
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Edited by George Amy
Release date: December 28, 1940
Running time: 110 minutes
Budget: $1.15 million
Box office: $2.53Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing this film on November 8, 2019.

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