(br) wrote: "All seven of you men violated the first sin of military conduct: the traffic and violent exchange of political ideas, which are not the affairs of an American soldier." - Robert E. Lee, [u]Santa Fe Trail[/u]. This film was decently ahead of its time. Santa Fe Trail is a dramatization of American abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia, where he captured a federal arsenal in an attempt to overthrow the United States government because of its continued tolerance for slavery. Brown (Raymond Massey) was a deeply religious man who believed God had called upon him to free the slaves and destroy the institution that kept them in bondage, but this film is less about him and more about JEB Stuart (Errol Flynn), the young lieutinent who attempted to negotiate Brown's surrender, George Custer (Ronald Reagan), later famous general and Stuart's friend, and Stuart's lover, Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia DeHavilland). Stuart and Custer graduate from West Point with Carl Rader (Van Heflin), a John Brown sympathizer, and become fast friends, but are attracted to the same girl. As their triangle grows, John Brown grows in power, with Rader helping him, and plans his fateful raid, driven by the idea that he's doing God's work, and will be rewarded in Heaven for it. The raid is ultimately unsuccessful, and he's hanged as an enemy of the state, but as we all know present day, his actions are just the tip of an iceberg against slavery that later grows into the Civil War, where the matter gets settled with extreme prejudice. To an extent. Wow. So much to talk about here. Let's start with the film: Michael Curtiz is best known for directing [u]Casablanca[/u] (1942), and is one of Steven Spielberg's influences. Having only seen [u]Casablanca[/u] prior to this, I only knew that it was a great film, but watching Santa Fe Trail, I see why he's so respected in film circles across the board. Just like [u]Casablanca[/u], I'm struck by how clean Curtiz's style is. Every shot is perfectly set, every scene played at just the right note, and the story flows nicely as a result. Casablanca, I always felt, stood the test of time because of that clarity, and that happens here as well. Helping Curtiz out are probably one of the best casts I've seen in a classic film in a long time. Before there was Arnold and Seagal and Van Damme, there were Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn. Flynn does a great job playing Mr. Good Guy in this film, as he always does, but I really got into Van Heflin's performance as Carl Rader. This is a Hal Wallis Warner Brothers film, and Van Heflin plays this character in a style that would make James Cagney proud. He has the same cool intensity that Warner Brothers' best gangsters all had. Ronald Reagan doesn't do much, but then, he never did as much as an actor as he did a politician, and bottom line, one of my story complaints is the simple, straight forward, two dimensional nature of this love triangle. The whole thing isn't really developed well or realistically, and when Kit Carson Holliday gives Custer the boot, after he's done nothing to win her except say that he likes her, he pretty much takes it with an "aw shucks," matching the passion of this love story as a whole. Nonetheless, DeHavilland is really beautiful, does the little that's asked of her, and that part of the story goes from there. The real heart and meat of this movie is the John Brown story, which is so interesting to think about in 2006. First of all, Brown is a religious terrorist. Period. The thing is, with the benefit of hindsight, we - and the filmmakers - know that his cause was just! He's not killing people randomly because he has an axe to grind against our culture, he really has a legitimate beef. While this is obviously just my opinion, I think he really was doing God's work in fighting for abolition, while others of his time were just talking about it. And more than that, if you really research this story, Brown was funded by rich Northerners who really wanted to overthrow the U.S. government. His religiousity was manipulated, and he took the heat for it, but it wasn't like he was some kook from out of nowhere. There were very rich and powerful men backing him up on this, and we see a little of it in this film. When he's hanged, his speech is downright inspiring, and damn it, I love Raymond Massey as an actor. I really do. I loved him in [u]Abe Lincoln in Illinois[/u] (John Cromwell, 1940), I loved him as the substitute for Boris Karloff in the movie version of [u]Arsenic and Old Lace[/u] (Frank Capra, 1944), and he really sells us John Brown. Though Rader calls him a madman, Massey plays him with certainty, not madness. Again, it's really refreshing to see this 1940's film trying hard to tell its story without taking a stand on abolition. As the quote I began with this review tells us, it's not for soldiers to discuss politics, and it seems its not for filmmakers to do so either. They're just here to tell a story, which I can respect. And what about the story itself? What I didn't like about this film was Rader calling Brown a madman, and the scene in which the Black slaves complain that they don't like freedom. This is also another movie where we see the pitiable plight of Blacks in 1940's Hollywood, as Big Daddy Kane would put it, playing "slaves and ho's." Aside from that, however, again, I was really struck by the movie's dogged refusal to really criticize John Brown. The implicit message is that his methods were wrong, but again, Robert E. Lee tells us that apolitical is the way it goes in war, and the only person who really insults John Brown is Rader, who we discover to be a greedy opportunist at his heart. If the bad guy is the only person sounding off against the supposed "villain" of the piece, what are the filmmakers trying to tell, or not tell us? Long story short, not only is [u]Santa Fe Trail[/u] extremely well executed for its time (and I didn't even mention the quality of the battle scenes, which are well staged and pretty exciting), but it kind of sneaks in some thoughtful political commentary in what's ostensibly a historical action drama. And in a time where we all pretty much believe John Brown was on the right side (Lincoln himself, who shuts Brown down, would later obviously fight for his cause in the Civil War, which Kit Carson Holliday alludes to in the crucial hanging scene), and are constantly struggling both with issues of terrorism and what a soldier's duty truly is, I'm glad I saw this film when I did. It has an all star cast (even Alan Hale, "The Skipper" of "Gilligan's Island" fame is in this movie) that includes a future President of the United States, it's directed by one of the world's greatest, and approaches the material as intelligently as the genre permits. Not a perfect film, but pretty damn close.