Monday, December 28, 2015

Not Exactly the Santa Fe Trail

"I have given you fair warning. You can keep your heads or lose 'em as you wish."

John Brown (Raymond Massey)

If you have never seen "Santa Fe Trail," which made its debut 75 years ago today, I guess it is important to know something before you do see it.

The movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the real Santa Fe Trail, which was a 19th–century transportation route that ran from Franklin in western Missouri to Santa Fe in northern New Mexico.

Rather, it was a pretty basic account of the events surrounding John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) — about 800 miles east of Franklin — less than two years before the start of the Civil War.

(Well, I suppose a rather tenuous connection could made from the fact that the trail started in Missouri and the railroad that would replace the Santa Fe Trail as a commercial route couldn't be built until Brown was driven from neighboring Kansas, an event that was re–created in "Santa Fe Trail," but making that mental connection would require the viewer to know certain details about American history that were never explored in "Santa Fe Trail" and a garden–variety moviegoer in 1940 was no more likely to know than one in 2015.)

It wasn't entirely literal history, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a rousing good story, and it had a great cast.

It had Errol Flynn in it so audiences knew it would have lots of action and romance.

It had Olivia de Havilland in it so audiences knew they would be treated to a top–notch performance from an actress who, although her movie career was only a few years old at the time, was already regarded as being an actress in the classical mold.

It had Raymond Massey, who had been established as a classical actor for at least a decade and lent some of his personal credibility to the role of John Brown — even though, as I say, the movie is not the definitive word on the history of either the mid–19th century or John Brown.

And it had Ronald Reagan. No one knew at the time, of course, that Reagan would be elected president 40 years later. In the role of George Armstrong Custer, Reagan had a bit of a rivalry with Flynn's character, Jeb Stuart, that supposedly went back to their days at West Point.

I've been a student of American history most of my life. I will readily concede that I am not an authority on military history or military school history, and I don't know enough about Custer's individual relationships with his fellow cadets to pass judgment — but I do know that Custer had one of the worst personal conduct records in the school's history and was nearly expelled several times. Many of his demerits were received for pulling tricks on classmates so such a rivalry would not be inconceivable.

But Jeb Stuart must have been a stand–in for all those who were pranked by Custer. Stuart and Custer were never classmates. Stuart was born six years before Custer and graduated three years before Custer enrolled at West Point.

For that matter, Stuart was a West Point classmate of several people who had noteworthy military careers, according to the movie, but it played fast and loose with the facts, just as it did in its account of John Brown.

If you believed the movie, Stuart was a classmate of James Longstreet, George Pickett, Phil Sheridan and John Bell "Sam" Hood as well as Custer, but Stuart was a teenager when Longstreet and Pickett graduated from West Point, and Stuart, as I say, had been gone for three years when Custer enrolled there. Stuart was at West Point when Sheridan and Hood were there, but they graduated a year before he did. I have seen no evidence that Stuart knew either one.

Also, I have heard nothing of a romance between Stuart and the woman known as Kit Carson Holliday, the name of de Havilland's character. Stuart was married to a woman named Flora and was reportedly devoted to her until his death during the Civil War.

The only Kit Carsons I ever heard of were men. I can only assume that Kit Carson Holliday was entirely fictional.

Another inconvenient fact. When you look at pictures of John Brown in history books, he always has a long beard, but he didn't grow his beard until after he left Kansas. Nevertheless, in "Santa Fe Trail," he is portrayed with a long beard.

But Hollywood never let the facts get in the way of a good story. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

And, as I say, it was a good story.

It just wasn't literal history.

So if you are a student and you want to write a paper about John Brown or any of the other famous folks who were portrayed in "Santa Fe Trail," I implore you — don't use this movie as one of your sources.

Watch it and enjoy it. It's very entertaining.

But please don't treat it as a reputable factual source.