Santa Fe Trail is a 1940 western film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Despite glaring historical inaccuracies, the film was one of the top-grossing films of the year, being the seventh Flynn-de Havilland collaboration. The film also has nothing to do with its namesake, the famed Santa Fe Trail except that the trail started in Missouri. Instead, it follows the life of Jeb Stuart, a cavalry commander (and future Confederate Army general).
The film purports to follow the life of J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Among its sub-plots are a romance with the fictional Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), friendship with George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan), and battles against abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey). One glaring inaccuracy has Stuart leading a cavalry charge against John Brown "fort" in Harper Ferry. In fact Stuart was at Harper's Ferry-but John Brown was captured in an infantry assault by US Marines under command of US Army Colonel Robert Edward Lee. Another inaccuracy is the film has Stuart, Custer, and Philip Sheridan all having been part of the West Point graduating class of 1854. In fact, Sheridan was the class of 1853, Stuart 1854, and Custer not until 1861-a year early because of the onset of the Civil War.
The movie is drastically critical of John Brown, portraying him as a bloodthirsty villain and blaming him for causing the Civil War, thereby exonerating the Confederacy for seceding. African-Americans are portrayed as practically content to be slaves and too fearful to fight with Brown in his abolitionist crusade, whereas in reality about one fourth of Brown's group were African-American. After being freed, some African-Americans in the film chant "We's free! We's free!", but later freed slaves say "We don't want it" with regards to freedom.
Massey's John Brown eagerly endorses breaking apart the union of the United States, as though abolitionism was the threat to the union rather than slavery. The movie was made on the eve of World War 2, and its tone and political subtext express a desire to reconcile the nation's dispute over slavery which brought about the American Civil War and appeal to moviegoers in both the southern and northern United States. The American Civil War and abolition of slavery are presented as an unnecessary tragedy caused by an anarchic madman. The heroic protagonists such as Flynn's Jeb Stuart and Reagan's Custer seem unable to conceive how the issue of slavery could place them at odds in the near future, even though by 1859 hostility between the pro/anti-slavery states had reached a boiling point.
In its initial release, Warner Brothers premiered this film in some large cities with an experimental sound system called Vitasound. Not a stereophonic system as sometimes reported, Vitasound employed a second track between the regular soundtrack and the sprocket holes. This second track would control additional speakers in the theater to create louder sounds for battlefield scenes, and so forth. (Source: IMDB) This system was unrelated to Disney's Fantasound system which had just been used for roadshow engagements of Fantasia, released 13 November 1940. The Fantasound system was scrapped as soon as RKO Radio Pictures took over distribution of Fantasia in April 1941, because RKO balked at the additional cost of wiring theaters for the process.
- 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