Santa Fe Trail: What Was Warner Bros. Thinking?

Ronald Reagan, Olivia De Havilland, and Errol Flynn in Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In watching Santa Fe Trail, one starts wondering if this Western was the consolation prize for Warner Bros. after losing Gone with the Wind.

In the first moments after pressing play, my first question was just what the hell was Warner Bros. thinking? It’s not just the studio. Michael Curtiz is a filmmaker that is better than this pro-Confederate propaganda. Leave it to him to read into the history of the Santa Fe trail but my G-d, he shouldn’t be behind the camera for this revisionist shit. That’s what it is. None of the West Point graduates were in the same graduating class in 1854. There are so many factual errors that it’s practically unforgivable as a film. They didn’t have Wikipedia to use as an excuse for writing the usual by-the-numbers biopic that we have these days. You start to wonder if this film had any historical consultant on hand to say, hey, maybe don’t do this!

Dodge City screenwriter Robert Bucker’s indefensible script features a fantasy of having Jeb Stuart (1854), George Custer (1861), Philip Sheridan (1853), George Pickett (1846), James Longstreet (1842), and John Bell Hood (1853) in the same class. Furthermore, the film has all of them serving at Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory at the same time. I understand the idea of making them friends and depicting their futures on opposite sides of the Civil War. But for the sake of historical inaccuracy, I can’t help but side-eye this film. It does not even matter whether one views through a 1940 lens or a 2023 lens because the screenplay is absolutely dreadful. There’s a whole love triangle between two people who were never in Kansas Territory at the same time with a woman that didn’t even exist!

Both Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) were not friends in real life. But if you watch this film, you might come away thinking they’re best buddies. Furthermore, no records exist of Custer being stationed in Kansas Territory–he was only stationed in Kansas after the Civil War. For the same reason, both Stuart (1st) and Custer (2nd, 5th) served in different Calvary Regiments.

Carl Rader (Van Heflin) is fictional. There’s enough drama in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Is creating a character to assist and later betray him really necessary? I doubt it. But that being said, I do appreciate how he’s an abolitionist in the beginning and distributing anti-slavery pamphlets.

When it comes to the U.S. Army leading an assault on the engine house, this is also inaccurate. While it is true that the Robert E. Lee was in command, the Marines led the charge. There’s some truth to Stuart approaching Brown for their surrender but when that failed, he signaled the Marines. Again, the film is messing with history here.

Regarding the Brown family: Jason Brown may have been a POW for a time but he was never shot and killed in Kansas Territory. No, he would live into the late 1800s at the very least. But again, nobody is doing their research here.

Do even start on the railroad construction in New Mexico? They’re 20 years too early! And if that’s not enough, the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army revolvers also weren’t around during this time. Speaking of the railroad, Cyrus K. Holliday never had any daughters named Kit (Olivia de Havilland). In fact, Stuart had married Flora Cooke in 1855. Again, did the studio have historical consultants on hand?!?

One of the most fakakta sins is the inclusion of Jefferson Davis. One, he didn’t have any adult age children at the time. Two, he wasn’t even apart of James Buchanan’s cabinet when the raid took place. Appearing at their graduation would make sense given his position at the time. But again, he should not even be in the film after they flash forward to 1859. If I had to guess, it’s some Lost Cause bullshit that tries to rehab his image and it’s an epic failure.

I haven’t read enough on John Brown to know if Raymond Massey’s portrayal is the best. Santa Fe Trail views him as an antagonist but whether one agrees with his methods or not, he was an American hero. We only see Brown’s part in the Pottawatomie Massacre in Bleeding Kansas. But as the film inches closer to its climax at Harpers Ferry, there is not really a mention of the other events that drew America closer to the Civil War. I might have chuckled during the fortune telling scene when the soldiers refused to fathom being on different sides over slavery. If you’ve read a history book, you probably know how bad it was by the late 1850s. Also, there’s no depiction of Shields Green in this film.

The Civil War was always going to happen–it was not a matter of if but when. That’s what happens when America’s founders put off the inevitable, leaving it to future generations. The Great Triumvirate of Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun did their best to keep the country together with their various compromises. But at the end of the day, slavery was America’s darkest sin and needed to be abolished.

The film is so bad that Music by Max Steiner doesn’t even go into any commentary on the film. It just shows Steiner composing the film in November 1940. When the definitive biography chooses not to cover the film, you know it’s a dud (the film, not Steven C. Smith’s biography).

As for director Michael Curtiz, some of his typical behavior took place with no regard for anyone’s welfare on set. Alan K. Rode’s biography of Curtiz notes that Jack Warner gave the go-ahead to Buckner and said to make Brown the heavy. Rode describes the film as “another exercise in preposterous historical bowdlerizing.” About my earlier comments on not hiring a consultant, Rode writes:

“The studio’s researcher Herman Lissauer consulted with the public relations officer at West Point and provided him with a copy of Buckner’s script. The West Point officer was appalled, but he tried to be helpful: ‘I realize that you have a problem…If it is not too late to change the script, I think we could obtain information for you on names that are significantly less known, who are nearer the 1854 period.'”

You couldn’t blame the officer for trying. Meanwhile, they thankfully took General George McClellan out of the film along with Henry Ward Beecher. The latter for fear of a lawsuit. Unfortunately, no such luck in excising Tex Bell (Alan Hale) and Windy Brody (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and their comic relief from the film. Listen, I’m all for comic relief but they stuck out like a sore thumb.

As a producer, Hal Wallis may have known what it takes to sell a movie. Unfortunately, his notes for Santa Fe Trail work more or less in favor of those descendants on the losing side of the war. This comes through with Stuart’s dialogue in particular. He’s condemning slavery in one scene before saying that matters will resolve itself after John Brown’s hanging and the South can go about its business. Wallis also wanted to remove John Brown’s hanging at the end but Curtiz and Buckner fought back. It stayed and the film should have ended there but they just had to take on a marriage scene between Stuart and Holliday. Again, Stuart was married with children for a few years by this point.

There’s no doubt that Warner Bros. as a studio was using their films to show the dangers of Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Europe. It’s understandable why Warner Bros. might have seen the onset of the Civil War in Santa Fe Trail as a way to comment on WWII but it only comes off as an epic fail. The two wars couldn’t be more different. Look at the scene where John Brown frees slaves at the Underground Railroad and then look at what happens when the former slaves bandage Stuart. They’re terribly written but it’s possible that Buckner’s script wanted to bring the country back together. The script fails but again, the Lost Cause was very popular during this time. One year earlier, Gone with the Wind portrayed a very different portrait of the Antebellum South.

DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITER: Robert Buckner
CAST: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, with Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, and William Lundigan, Van Heflin, Gene Reynolds, Henry O’Neill, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams

Warner Bros. released Santa Fe Trail on December 28, 1940. Grade: 1/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.