Enjoyable western despite its historical inaccuracies and intermittent romance 3.5 Stars

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.

Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Released: 28 Dec 1940
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 110 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey
Writer(s): Robert Buckner
Plot: In 1854, Jeb Stuart, George Custer and other graduates from West Point are posted to Kansas to help pacify the territory before railroad construction to Santa Fe can resume.
IMDB rating: 6.3
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 49 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 09/14/2021
MSRP: $21.99

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.

Video: 4.5/5

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.

Audio: 5/5

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)

Overall: 3.5/5

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!

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Published by

Matt Hough

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Andrew Budgell

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One of the few Olivia de Havilland films I haven't seen. I'm glad I held off on watching one of the public domain releases, and instead will be experiencing this film for the first time on a fantastic Blu-ray boasting an excellent presentation. I hope this paves the way for WAC to release the new remaster of Life With Father.

Thank you for the excellent review, Matt
 

Robert Crawford

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Looking forward to reading your opinions.
This movie is currently on my "100 All-Time Favorite Westerns" list. I already revisited it earlier this year and will do so again with this new Blu-ray with video and audio presentations that should far surpass that PD crap I watched earlier.

Right now, I'm not sure it will remain on my listing as I take more issue with some of the stuff in the movie than I did back when I watched this movie for the first time back in the 1960s on TV.
 

David_B_K

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I watched this Blu-ray over the weekend. It's such a historical mish-mash that it has never been a huge favorite of mine. However, I felt compelled to buy it to add to the Flynn collection. If they had given the protagonists fictional names, they could almost have pulled it off as historical fiction. But the real Harper's Ferry "battle" was a very small affair in real life, and the railroad to Santa Fe was a couple of decades out of place.

I really liked Raymond Massey's committed performance as John Brown. Though he was ostensibly the villain of the piece, his motives were shown as noble, so it was hard to see him in an entirely negative light. I think the film did a good job of making Brown seem admirable but misguided. I also liked how the film showed that the Civil War was crouching on the doorstep and that all those officers would soon be arrayed against each other. What little there was of de Havilland was great. She looked quite fetching in the plaid shirt and boots and a smudge on her face.

The real story is Warner rescuing the movie from PD hell with a beautiful Blu-ray presentation.
 

smithbrad

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I'm actually looking forward to watching this more than "Naked Spur" that I ordered and received the same day.

I realize all the historical inaccuracies and totally understand the issues that creates. However, for me I watched this for the first time as part of a binge on newly acquired Error Flynn films. Including Olivia de Havilland and the novelty of seeing Ronald Reagan in a movie for the first time was a plus. This was also one of the films that made me into a big Raymond Massey fan. Even with the weak presentation of the PD DVD, I enjoyed it immensely. I can't believe it received this excellent treatment.
 

Richard Gallagher

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Raymond Massey also played John Brown in Seven Angry Men, available on DVD from Warner Archive. Perhaps it will get the Blu-ray treatment one of these days.