Michael Curtiz’s Santa Fe Trail is another bull’s eye for Warner Archive, this time returning in almost pristine condition a movie from the public domain for eager fans of the stars or the genre to enjoy.
The Production: 3.5/5
Michael Curtiz’s Santa Fe Trail marked the seventh screen pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but their chemistry, as potent and delightful as ever, fades into the background in this historical fiction pitting 1854 West Point graduates against the anarchist tendencies of abolitionist John Brown. The director isn’t as much concerned about the historical record as he is in creating a rousing entertainment, and that he’s done with three action set pieces that are beautifully staged and shot and featuring a gallery of well-known character actors relishing the chance to sink their teeth into some juicy roles.
After some inter-class rivalries on the eve of their graduation from West Point, Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn), George Custer (Ronald Reagan), and four other classmates are assigned the most treacherous postings in the military: the 2nd Cavalry in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1854, the Kansas territory was a hotbed of violence and bloodshed in its struggle to come into the Union either as a free or slave state. Firebrand John Brown (Raymond Massey) has been leading a renegade troupe of abolitionists determined to free all slaves even if it means the dissolution of the Union, and the cavalry must do everything in its power to quell the disturbances and capture Brown. He is not a man who will give up quietly, especially as he has a secret weapon, an undercover agent Rader (Van Heflin) who had been dishonorably discharged from West Point and with his military knowledge is doing all he can to help Brown in his crusade.
The screenplay by Robert Buckner is pretty worthless in terms of historical accuracy, and for those looking for a historical romance, the Flynn-de Havilland-Ronald Reagan love triangle that offers a respite between battle scenes is pretty nondescript, too, but the script incorporates such thrilling action scenes that the other problems don’t really matter much. John Brown has three face-offs against the cavalry: in a shootout and chase across the prairie where his young son Jason (Gene Raymond) is injured, a faceoff at Palmyra where Stuart and some slaves are trapped in a burning barn with Brown between the barn and the advancing cavalry, and years later with the final showdown at Harper’s Ferry on the eve of the Civil War. Director Michael Curtiz shows his mastery of battle scenes with his expert handling of all three of these encounters, and he also manages to work some comedy into the proceedings with trail tramps Tex Bell (Alan Hale) and Windy Brody (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) eager to crash the ranks of the Army for three square meals a day and the chance to fight in earnest. But the script has problems with its viewpoint: is John Brown’s cause just regardless of its extremes or is his fanaticism (portrayed as religious zealotry) the stumbling block in doing real good for enslaved people? And the movie constantly hits us over the head with the irony of so many people so loyal to the Union side in this pre-War tale who would eventually be fighting on the side of the Confederacy (Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, even J.E.B. Stuart himself).
As always, Errol Flynn’s screen charisma burns through even the weakest writing making this film one of his greatest hits (and another irony: within a few years, he’d be playing Ronald Reagan’s role of George Custer in another western They Died with Their Boots On). Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Halliday looks lovely and has plenty of spunk (which she always displays in films co-starring with Flynn), but she’s a decided afterthought here despite her beauty and second billing. Ronald Reagan shows lots of teeth and a hearty manner as Custer, but he’s outshone by Alan Hale and Guinn Williams as good ol’ boys always up for a drink or a fight. Van Heflin underplays very effectively his snide and underhanded character of Rader. Raymond Massey practically pops his eyes out of their sockets in expressing the zeal of John Brown’s fanatical mission, but there is no denying that it’s a riveting characterization. The young Gene Reynolds has a deathbed scene that’s wonderfully moving and memorable as John Brown’s youngest son; Alan Baxter as his oldest son doesn’t get as notable a showcase, but he’s nevertheless effective. Others making firm impressions throughout the film are Henry O’Neill as Kit’s father, William Lundigan as her amiable brother, Moroni Olsen as Robert E. Lee, Erville Alderson as Jefferson Davis, and Ward Bond and Charles Middleton as fighters on opposing sides.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully reproduced in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Rescued from the tortures of the public domain, the image is beautifully sharp and clean with lots of detail in the close-ups and a grayscale that emphasizes the richness of the black levels. Only one or two shots are excessively soft looking like something from a different generation. Otherwise, the image is clear enough for us to notice the occasional trip wire for horses whose riders are felled by bullets. The movie has been divided into 30 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix features impressive fidelity for a film of this age. Max Steiner’s unmistakably lilting and ultimately heroic background score has been mixed with the clearly recorded dialogue and the sharp sound effects to make a most impressive mono track. There are no problems with age-related anomalies like hiss, pops, crackle, and flutter.
Special Features: 1/5
Theatrical Trailer (2:31, HD)
Michael Curtiz’s Santa Fe Trail is another bull’s eye for Warner Archive, this time returning in almost pristine condition a movie from the public domain for eager fans of the stars or the genre to enjoy. Fine job all around!
Some of our content may contain marketing links, which means we will receive a commission for purchases made via those links. In our editorial content, these affiliate links appear automatically, and our editorial teams are not influenced by our affiliate partnerships. We work with several providers (currently Skimlinks and Amazon) to manage our affiliate relationships. You can find out more about their services by visiting their sites.