Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It is really the most absurd sensation to watch an old film with Ronald Reagan and ponder that a few decades later, this was to become the president of the United States. But there it is, and when the film in question deals with important events in American history, that absurdity increases.

In Santa Fe Trail, he plays a young George Custer (yes, the George Custer of Little Big Horn) alongside the film’s leading male Errol Flynn as “Jeb” Stuart (another famous American general). And between them, in that eternal Hollywood love triangle, stands Olivia de Havilland, the only leading actor to play a fictional character in this film.

Ronald Reagan as George Custer, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn as J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

There are more than just a few parallels between this film and The Birth of a Nation from 25 years earlier. In terms of chronology, Santa Fe Trail describes the events leading up to those depicted in the older film. Both films also feature many historical persons, casting them in a sympathetic light or lack thereof depending on what fits the film’s message. And even that message is partly the same: that the African Americans and their supporters were the ones responsible for the American Civil War, even though Santa Fe Trail is not quite so open and outspoken about it, trying to hide its racism behind double meanings and generalisations.

So this film should not be seen as a history lesson. In terms of historical accuracy, it is standard Hollywood nationalistic nonsense, or worse, and when that nationalistic nonsense is delivered with an Australian accent, it tends to become a bit silly at times. Indeed, Flynn is not making his best role here, though his natural charm shines through as always.

But of course, this movie has a number of good sides, or there would be no reason to report it here. There are many things to recommend it. Lighting and camerawork show excellent craftsmanship, and the actors are good overall. And better than all the rest put together is an absolutely brilliant Raymond Massey as John Brown. Massey delivers every line with just the perfect touch of madness.

This film is best enjoyed if you can see past its shortcomings and enjoy it as a typical period piece with some very interesting actors at the height of their careers.

Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D. W. Griffith’s classic The Birth of a Nation holds a very peculiar position in the history of cinema. On one hand, it is celebrated as a milestone of cinematic storytelling, and a majestic epic. On the other, it is looked down upon for its racist content.

Last week, I wrote about The Klansman (1974) and its roots in the civil rights struggle. The Birth of a Nation describes the beginning of that struggle. Interestingly, it was based on a novel titled “The Clansman” and that was also the film’s title at the first screening. Whether the makers of the 1974 movie consciously referenced this or not, I do not know, but it seems appropriate, considering that in many ways The Birth of a Nation is The Klansman’s distorted hall of mirrors reflection.

The Ku Klux Klan prepares the lynching of a black man in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The first third of the film tells the story of two families, one from the North and one from the South, and how the sons of each fight the war. Griffith’s primary message with the film (rarely mentioned today) was anti-war, and that the (white) people of the North and South must stand united in peace.

The rest of the film deals with the Reconstruction Era during the twelve years after the war. We follow the same characters as in the first part as they struggle for or against the rights of the former slaves in the new order. This is where Griffith became controversial (even back when the film was first released) because he openly blames the blacks and their political supporters for all the problems that the South had to see.

It is easy today to condemn Griffith’s portrayal of post-war South, but it must be remembered that the movie was made less than forty years after Reconstruction Era ended. It was still a period in living memory, and a period that caused many dramatic changes in a society that was already badly burned by four years of brutal war. Certainly, many of the changes during the Era caused grief and it is understandable that, even four decades later, it was easier to blame the problems on the aspect of race, rather than deal with the real matters, which were far more complex and difficult to change.

Several films were made as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation. One of the more interesting (though considerably more restricted in its visual language) was Within Our Gates (1920), the first feature film made by an African American director.

For my own part (being a European) I knew very little about the period following the Civil War before I watched this movie. And while the movie itself did not really help much in terms of learning the true events, it nevertheless prompted me to look up some facts on the Internet. Very informative, indeed.

The Birth of a Nation suffers considerably from the fact that all blacks are played by poorly made-up whites. See for instance the image below, where the face is blackened, but the arms and chest remain white.

But in many ways, the film is still powerful and captivating. Especially the mass battle scenes are impressive. The film was in many ways a forerunner to the giant leaps that film-making was to take in the years to follow, and even though it does not reach up to the standards of the best films from the 1920s, it looks extremely impressive when compared to any other film from earlier or about the same time.

There are two versions of the film at the Internet Archive. One is incomplete (the first 45 minutes only) but is of superior image quality and soundtrack to the version otherwise linked from this post.

This film is best enjoyed if you know something about the historical background against which it is set. I would encourage you to look up some facts about the Reconstruction Era before watching the movie.

Racial tension in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The Birth of a Nation
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Year: 1915
Running time: 3 h 0 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Mae Marsh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly illustrating the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (1.5 G)

The General (1926)

On this day in history, 150 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg began. Whether it was a heroic fight for a noble cause, or a terrible slaughter (about 50,000 dead; almost ten times the population of the town where I live), there can be no doubt that it was an event that shaped the history of the world, in such a way that the consequences can still be felt.

There are surprisingly few interesting movies about the American Civil War on the Internet Archive. One of those few happen to be Buster Keaton’s The General.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General is based on the true story of a band of of Union spies who stole a train and drove it through Confederate territory, causing as much damage as possible. They were followed by the train’s conductor with two other men, and this is where Keaton takes off with his story. Keaton takes the role of the train engineer Johnnie, who desperately wants back his train, and also his girlfriend who happened to be on board when the hijacking was made. He has to go through fire and water (literally) to do so. Keaton adapted most of the story to fit the needs of a comedy, but otherwise he went to great lengths to make the details (such as the locomotives) historically accurate. Interestingly, the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is based on the same events, but tells the story from the Union perspective.

Perhaps the most memorable parts of The General are the many amazing stunts and effects, not least the scene where a steam locomotive crashes into a ravine when a bridge falls apart. This was apparently the most expensive single scene to be filmed during the entire silent era, and the locomotive is actually real. It remained there on the bottom of the ravine for decades.

It is very difficult to imagine The General without the stunts. The success of this film builds very much upon the body language and amazing timing of one of the all-time greatest of film comedians. If you have never seen Buster Keaton before, then this is a very good place to start. In my opinion, Keaton has made even better films, but even so it is one of the greatest comedies of the silent era.

When you have finished watching this film, you should take a look at the fantastic blog Silent Locations, which has a post about the film. Make sure to follow the link to the complete presentation about the film. Amazing stuff!

This film is best enjoyed after having been to a good railway museum (such as the one in Kennesaw, Georgia, where the real The General still stands).

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)