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Santa Fe Trail

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So they want to ban Gone With the Wind? Pity, because a movie they would really like to strangle is Santa Fe Trail. Made in 1940, Santa Fe Trail is an Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland Western with lots of action and romance that discusses slavery and the Southern point of view in rational terms.

Errol Flynn plays Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan plays George Custer. They are classmates at West Point in 1854 (both attended West Point, but not in the same class), and are ready for graduation. The only canker is cadet Rader (a surly Van Heflin), an abolitionist whose open distribution of abolitionist pamphlets leads to a fight between him and Stuart, who argues that “the South will solve the problem in its own time and way.”

They’re hauled before Superintendent Robert E. Lee (a majestic Moroni Olsen, and yes, Lee was Superintendent). Olsen lets Stuart go, but assures him he’ll get a dangerous assignment after graduation as punishment. (For Errol Flynn characters, though, “danger” is code for derring-do.) Lee dismisses Rader for bringing politics to the academy. (True: cadets were forbidden any kind of political discussion or reading.) 

Rader vows to get even and make sure the South gets what it deserves.

Graduation is presided over by Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War (true; he was), and Stuart and Custer get into an ongoing rivalry over Kit (Olivia de Havilland), a feisty girl from Kansas, the dangerous assignment where Stuart and Custer have been posted. Kansas is trying to get a railroad through, but can’t because of struggles between pro- and anti-slave factions, the latter led by John Brown (a frightening and almost Biblical Raymond Massey). 

The historic railroad was halted by slavery and anti-slavery forces, but not because of actual border warfare. There was no railroad in Kansas or Missouri at the time. There were two railroad plans proposed: one going from Chicago to San Francisco, the other from New Orleans to Los Angeles, a sort of Iron Horse Route 66. The latter was favored by the South, the former by the North. Expansion stopped until the sectional struggle was resolved, so the struggle in the film is a simplified version.

Brown has just slaughtered pro-slavers in Pottawatomie, and when a shipment of “Bibles” (actually rifles) is intercepted by Stuart, the fighting starts. 

Rader from West Point has joined forces with Brown, and although checked by Stuart, both are formidable adversaries. After the cavalry shuts Brown down, everyone returns East, where Stuart’s romancing of Kit is interrupted as Brown, financed by the Secret Six, a group of northern abolitionists (true), seizes Harper’s Ferry and uses its arsenal to lead a slave insurrection (very true).

Brown and his men’s total surprise attack allowed them to seize the arsenal. They were ready to head into the hills and draw in escaped slaves, but in a historical curiosity, Brown stopped. In the movie, this is because of Rader’s conniving, but historically, Brown stalled and became inactive shortly after achieving his goal. Sort of like a gang completing the perfect bank robbery and, instead of making their getaway, going across the street for a celebratory dinner. 

Lee mobilizes the Army to stop Brown. The rousing battle in the film wasn’t quite so in real life, lacking mass charges, artillery, and dozens of casualties. Lee led a company of Marines, and various Virginia militia units provided back-up, but Stuart was there and did deliver a surrender ultimatum to Brown. 

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Also curious (not shown in the movie) is that when the shooting started, the first man shot by Brown’s men wasn’t a slaver or evil racist, but a curious baggageman at the railroad station, a free black liked by everyone.

Brown is defeated and hanged, but not before he prophesies a “holy, bloody war” to end slavery. Stuart and Kit are happily wed on a train puffing away to Kansas. All is well . . . for now. Almost true. Stuart did marry a girl from Kansas, although she was an army brat with her parents on her father’s latest posting. 

This movie was always a childhood favorite of mine, and has lots of action, comic relief, high spirits, and the usual Errol Flynn swashbuckling. Santa Fe Trail‘s historical portrayal of the slavery argument is convincing, but the temper of the film is decidedly pro-South. It must be emphasized that this was the former establishment viewpoint: slavery was wrong and needed to be resolved, but America had no place or support for armed insurrection against the government to end it.

Brown is depicted as a fanatic willing to see his sons die for this cause, and Massey plays him like an evil Moses, but not in a one-dimensional way. Massey’s Brown commands strength and respect. Exasperated, he asks Stuart: when will the South end slavery? The answer seems to be “only by violence.”

Stuart, Lee, and Davis were Americans who have respected places in the government. In essence, the South was the federal government, and it can be argued that the “Union” created by Lincoln and his Northern backers was actually a revolution against the American republic, supplanting it with a new system of equal rights, corporate money created by industrialization and the war economy, and an ever-expanding government controlled by plutocrats and big cities.

This was a radical, weird concept when I was growing up during the Civil War centennial, but it now has more than a few believers. 

What about the slaves? Those in the movie are passive, kind, and uneasy. They want freedom but are not sure what to do with it. When Brown frees slaves and they sing a rousing spiritual, one asks: “What’s going to happen to us? Who’s gonna take care of us?” Brown replies they are now on their own, in God’s hands, and promptly leaves to finish off Stuart.

In a sense, this was how abolitionists thought of slaves. They were less real people than an ideal to be achieved, and in the last half-century, there has been a constant clash between what blacks represent and what they are.

At one point, a confrontation between Brown and Stuart sets a barn on fire. As Stuart fights his way out, he takes some blacks caught in the crossfire with him. A woman says: “If this is what freedom is like, I’d just as soon be a slave.” You may cringe. Such dialogue may have been inserted to please Southern audiences at the movies. But slaves had no say, historically speaking. Like today, they were waiting for the white man to do something. Note that in the BLM riots and statue desecrations, whites were on the front lines, especially white women — the spiritual descendants of Harriet Beecher Stowe?

As one film critic said a couple of years ago, blacks don’t want to be reminded of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; they want Spartacus. Perhaps that explains the success of Django Unchained, Tarantino’s antebellum fantasy where a black gunman goes on the warpath against evil whites to rescue his love. . . Broomhilda? A cartoon name for a cartoon movie, but such fantasies are what passes for enlightenment in contemporary culture. We seem on the verge of being ruled by a cross between commissars and cartoons. What a dark ride that’s going to be.

Nowadays, any sympathy for the Southern view is thoughtcrime. Santa Fe Trail would no doubt be at the top of the heap of a PC book burning. It’s a nascent White Nationalist film you should see, and it gets the history semi-right.

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  1. Reb Kittredge
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen it! It is everything you say it is …

  2. Traddles
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    In real life, George Custer was very devoted to some southerners whom he met at West Point, and who became Confederates. He had a lot of patriotism for the Union, but he helped Confederate friends and acquaintances who were captured or otherwise in trouble, during and after the war.

    A flawed man like all of us, but with a lot of admirable qualities too.

  3. SRP
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    “and it can be argued that the “Union” created by Lincoln and his Northern backers was actually a revolution against the American republic, supplanting it…”

    Yes, that can indeed be argued. The real America lasted from 1787 to 1861. It was eclipsed by the ersatz “America” of the present day. Believe it.

    By that premise, no amendment or law enacted since 1861 is legitimate, and we owe no allegiance to it. We owe our allegiance only to the America as it was originally constituted.

    • Rod Selvinton
      Posted February 12, 2021 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      They keep the American public good and hoodwinked on the true history of the South and the Civil War by bringing up the “racist” label every time you question the official narrative. And when that doesn’t work, they fall back on the “uneducated hicks” label. Who wants to be associated with stupid people? And clearly Southerners are stupid, don’t you know about it from all those Jewish films you’ve watched?

      It’s hard, hard, hard to get it through to people that the good guys lost the war and they were more like us than anybody who’s run this country since. But if you beat them over the head with enough facts, they start to come around.

      • SRP
        Posted February 13, 2021 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Please be advised that I am not in advocacy of a resurrected Confederacy. It was the Confederacy that brought the negroid problem and the slave economy to American shores originally.

        A victorious Confederacy would only have continued to increase negroid numbers, and then spit their negroids out once their slave economy could be replaced with wages and mechanization.

        Resurrect the original America rather than the Confederacy.

  4. Dr ExCathedra
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    As a Boomer (mea culpa) who has been absorbing US entertainment for about 70 years, I used the house arrest, uh, patriotic lockdown, period to go back into my life’s past and watch as many post WW2 TV series and films and Hollywood movies as I could.

    Seeing the world through a race-aware lens as I have come to do, I found but a single example of Black vs White tensions where a White who resisted the Black/WokeWhite POV was portrayed as anything other than evil and/or stupid. The 2003 Gods and Generals, in which slavery was a background rather than a theme. It was condemned, of course, for the crime of not condemning the Confederacy.

    Otherwise, in 70 years, nothing.

    My generation (whom I excuse not at all for our hubris) did not, however, invent ex nihilo the calamitous culture that we so sorrowfully inhabit now. We were, and we all continue to be, brainwashed from every conceivable angle. A Matrix indeed.

    Santa Fe Trail is the first film I’d heard of where anything approaching a non anti-White POV managed to squeak through. And it was made in 1940.

    (If any readers know of post 1945 portrayals where a White advocate is given a respectful voice, I’d like to know about it.)

  5. Cornelius
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The John Brown story is so strange, but I believe it was true. He flailed around trying to find a place in life, including promoting fraudulent canal schemes. Just before the railroads, canals were hyped like the Internet was in the late 1990s. He also had a farm where he settled former slaves–but it was in the high, cold Adirondack Mountains, a bad place for a farm. The Oates biography of Brown is an excellent book, one of the best bios.

    • Vauquelin
      Posted February 12, 2021 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps unwarranted, but the figures of John Brown and Lenin occupy a similar niche in my mind. Disheveled revolutionaries, married to dogma, possessed by a murderous messianic delusion of spartacist grandeur. One acting in the name of Christ, the other Marx, to achieve similar ends – the upheaval of white society.

  6. Francis XB
    Posted February 12, 2021 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    The skinny is that Santa Fe Trail (1940) was intended as propaganda to get the American people behind US participation in the emerging World War, then a year old. At the time of the movie’s release there was a solid Isolationist movement, but the idea was to show how all Americans needed to get united behind a national effort to fight a common enemy (i.e., Germany). This was critical given that at the time there were strong regional divisions between North and South, with much loyalty still given to the Confederacy. Everyone had to rally around that Yankee flag.

    And while Santa Fe Trail’s John Brown was portrayed pretty much as a terroristic fanatic, Raymond Massey’s final speech about the “the crimes of this guilty land” gives him a gravitas which does not quite jibe with the rest of the movie. Perhaps the only way those crimes could be “purged away” was by destroying the Third Reich? Well, we are certainly living in the aftermath of that war.

    In the bigger “picture,” Hollywood produced a series of movies in the late 1930s glorifying the British Empire, presumably to overcome a latent anti-British bias among Americans: Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Gunga Din (1939). All of us movie going English speaking peoples have to unite against the big enemy in the Eastern Hemisphere! Interestingly enough in the climax of Gunga Din, the Indian rebel antagonist makes a climactic speech extolling nationalism.

    I’ll close out with a line from George MacDonald Fraser’s historical novel, Flash for Freedom, where Harry Flashman notes that Americans could respect John Brown because he was a rebel and fighting man.

    Something to think about in the continuing crisis…

  7. fenterlairck
    Posted February 13, 2021 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Good comments here, and I’ll react by the numbers
    1. Traddles on Custer: Custer, during one of the campaigns, actually snuck across Confederate lines to attend a friend’s wedding who was in the Confederate army, and he was welcomed during the truce. He flirted with one woman, who thought his humor very ‘cruel’, but admitted she admired him. When she began crying, Custer asked her why. ‘Colonel Custer,’ she sniffed, ‘you should be in OUR army!’ But Custer was a Union man, through and through.
    2.Ex Cathedra: I liked Gods and Generals, although it was a bit slow, but was quite good, probably better suited for TV than a movie screen. Duvall’s Lee is a masterpiece.
    3.Cornelius: Brown was certainly interesting. At his trial (tried not by the federal government but Virginia), Brown changed from a fanatic to espousing a holy cause. This was very noticeable, and maybe he changed his demeanor to get better p.r., realizing he flopped as a revolutionary, but might do better as a martyr. Historian John Garraty argued it would have made more sense to put Brown in an insane asylum, but Virginia would have none of that.
    4. Francis XB: I agree with your summation of pro-British movies in 30’s Hollywood, but don’t think Santa Fe trail is pro-WWII involvement. It presents a common American view of the Civil War, that out of its tragedy, a national unity and consensus emerged. I grew up in the Civil War centennial, and it was a ‘shake hands, Reb; put ‘er there, Yank’ feeling, now no longer extant.
    Now, as for Warner Brothers ‘The Fighting 69th’ and ‘Sergeant York’…those are very pro-war; they hit you over the head with it.
    As for British involvement in Hollywood, I refer you to Gore Vidal’s witty and thoughtful Screening History. Re British intelligence infiltrating Hollywood: ‘For those who find disagreeable today’s Zionist propaganda, I can only say that gallant little Israel of today must have learned a great deal from the gallant little Englanders of the 1930s. The English kept up a propaganda barrage that was to permeate our entire culture, with all sorts of unexpected results. Since the movies were by now the principal means of getting swiftly to the masses, Hollywood was subtly and not so subtly infiltrated by British propagandists.’
    Vidal referred to That Hamilton Woman, dealing With Nelson and Lady Hamilton, the rah-rah speeches were written by Winston Churchill. Again, Vidal:
    ‘Churchill’s mock-Macauley speeches for Nelson jar badly With Sherriff’s elegant dialogue, but patriot Olivier pulls it all together, as he warns everyone in sight not to do business with dictators, ever. There is also a map scene where “tiny little England” is carefully located for Emma Hamilton’s benefit, not to mention ours. Even then, British Intelligence had no great faith in the American educational system.”

    • Wild Bill D.
      Posted February 14, 2021 at 11:31 am | Permalink


      Very interesting about British propaganda in Hollywood.

      A tragically under-told story is that of the origin of the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. It was founded “at the request of William Stephenson,” a Canadian and the highest ranking British spy in the Western hemisphere.

      Stephenson got in the ear of FDR who then tasked “Wild Bill” Donovan with creating an American intelligence service directly modeled on Britain’s MI6.

      So, the OSS was full of British spies since day one – and if one follows the history, Britain’s intelligence was compromised by Soviets (or proto-Soviets) – and Zionists – almost from its founding.

      It’s difficult to NOT see “the intelligence agencies” as being their own “nation” working together AGAINST the national interests of the nations they had actual citizenship in.

      Is anything particularly different today? Clearly the Zionists have more power than the British and the Chinese may wind up taking it all in the not so distant future.

      • Posted February 15, 2021 at 6:05 am | Permalink

        The greater problem was that the OSS had lots of Marxists. For example, one was Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School, and another was Franz Leopold Neunann, their likely KGB liaison. Between them and all the pinkos in the State Department, they really hamstrung our postwar foreign policy.

  8. Les
    Posted February 14, 2021 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Some people may find it hard to believe but up until 1941 Britain was the traditional enemy of the United States. They had been to war twice – in 1776 and 1812. July 4 recognises the struggle against British imperialism. The UK also supplied guns and whiskey to Indian tribes in return for attacks on American settlers as well as selling arms and ammunition to Santa Anna during the Mexican-American War. During the War of 1812 the British burned down the White House. Has there even been one single Hollywood movie that shows such a momentous event as the torching of the President’s home and office ?

  9. fenterlairck
    Posted February 15, 2021 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Les: Actually, there was a film. The Buccaneer (1938), deals With the pirate Jean Lafitte (Frederic March) and his saving America in the battle of New Orleans (with a little help from Andy Jackson and his army). The movie starts in 1814, when the British invade Washington, and Dolley Madison (Spring Byington), refuses to leave the White House until she takes down Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, rolls it up and speeds to her carriage. This actually happened.
    The British arrive, and His Majesty’s officers do some gloating, enjoy food and drink at the president’s table while the city burns. Then the film whisks to New Orleans.

    There was a 1958 version starring Yul Brenner and Charlton Heston.

    You also forgot to mention the Civil War, where many in the British upper classes hoped the Confederacy would succeed, although many liberal Englishmen and the working class rooted for Lincoln.

  10. Altitude Zero
    Posted February 15, 2021 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I have no doubt that, given its time and Hollywood’s proclivities, at least part of the film’s purpose was to unite America behind the war effort, but it’s also true that the movie’s view of the Civil War as a tragedy that we had put behind us was so common as to be utterly unremarkable as recently as fifty years ago. And yet, I saw conservative and (more or less) race realist Greg Cochran react almost hysterically a few years ago to the suggestion that the Civil War was a tragedy that would have best been avoided. The brainwashing runs deep. Also, the movie’s depiction of many blacks as being very equivocal about “freedom” is pretty historical if interviews done with surviving slave in the 1920’s and 1930’s are to be believed. Whether one believes that the Civil War was a terrible but just and necessary war, or a bloody tragic mistake, the whole business was most certainly far more complicated than the puerile morality play that we have foisted on us today.

  11. german too.
    Posted February 24, 2021 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Fun detail on the side, the German dubbing voice of Errol Flynn in this movie, is the same as Eddie Murphy’s.

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