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.
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.
Santa Fe Trail
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)