Sunday, August 1, 2010

1940 - SANTA FE TRAIL, very good action but a mess of a plot

Very large scale pre Civil War film that has one of the messiest points of view I have ever seen in a 40's Western.

Southerners and Yankees train together at West Point to become future military leaders, the problem of slavery becomes a hotbed issue among them.  Upon graduation two of the new officers, Jeb Stuart played by Errol Flynn and George Armstrong Custer played by Ronald Reagan, get assigned to the Kansas territories where they get involved with tea party leader abolitionist leader John Brown. As is typical for these kind of films, Flynn and Regan both have the hots for the very pretty Olivia De Havilland playing one of those girl roles she came to despise early in her career.  Reagan competing against Flynn for De Havilland never stood a chance as he was always a 2nd string actor in Hollywood.

Clearly the plan for the film was not to antagonize any Southern audiences, since about every half hour we  get a  speech from Errol Flynn as the southerner Jeb Stuart saying things like, "the south will eventually get rid of slavery in their own way" or "a soldier's job is to not get involved in politics."  Since the real Jeb Stuart ended up fighting for the confederate army and Flynn in real life was from Australia, the whole thing seems pretty suspect.

The bad guy John Brown is a more interesting character than the three leads.  Raymond Massey plays John Brown with a lot of force and compassion for the slave cause certainly more than anyone else in the cast can even pretend to muster up. 

What this film really has going for it is the outstanding direction by one of the greatest studio directors in Hollywood, Michael Curtiz.  Curtiz had a great visual sense and was a master at directing action scenes on an intimate or large scale setting. A fight in an army barracks or a large scale shoot out with the military and John Brown's abolitionists are so excitingly shot that they make up for a lot problems and shortcomings with the film.

The cast, the photography the large scale production values and especially the direction hold this film together.

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