Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 10, 2012

Santa Fe Trail

Filed under: Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

Last night at 6pm when I was surfing through my Verizon TV “favorites”, I noticed that the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) network was airing “Santa Fe Trail”, a 1940 movie that was described in the following terms: “Romantic rivals get caught in the battle to stop abolitionist John Brown.” What the fuck? The battle to stop John Brown? This I had to see.

Although the film is a reactionary and racist piece of trash, I urge my readers to watch it online through Youtube since it is an essential cultural artifact of the New Deal. The writer/director team consisted of Robert Buckner and Michael Curtiz, the same people who brought you “Mission to Moscow”.

Despite the title, the movie has nothing to do with wagon trains or fighting off Indians. It is, as stated in the TCM blurb, an account of the military campaign against John Brown led by J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart that climaxed with the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown’s capture and eventual hanging. The opening caption says it all:

1854 – The United States Military Academy – West Point. When the gray cradle of the American army was only a small garrison with few cadets, but under a brilliant Commandant, named Robert E. Lee it was already building for the defense of a newly won nation in a new world.

Civil war buffs probably do not need to be reminded of who Robert E. Lee was, but Jeb Stuart’s role in fighting for the slavocracy was nearly as critical. He commanded the Northern Virginia confederate troops and took part in the Battle of Gettysburg. The wiki on Stuart cites historian Jeffery Wert:

Stuart had been the Confederacy’s knight-errant, the bold and dashing cavalier, attired in a resplendent uniform, plumed hat, and cape. Amid a slaughterhouse, he had embodied chivalry, clinging to the pageantry of a long-gone warrior. He crafted the image carefully, and the image befitted him. He saw himself as the Southern people envisaged him. They needed a knight; he needed to be that knight.

Stuart, who is played by Errol Flynn, is the hero and Brown (Raymond Massey) is the villain. His villainy is made quite explicit: it was he and he alone that precipitated a tragic war between North and South. In one scene, Stuart—who has been captured by Brown’s followers—argues that the South was changing and that peace was possible. Against Stuart’s reasonableness, Brown and his fighters are the living embodiment of dead-end fanaticism.

The rival referred to in the blurb is none other than General George M. Custer, who is played appropriately enough by Ronald Reagan, who deserved the same fate as the character he played: an arrow through the heart. They both love the same woman, ‘Kit Carson’ Holliday, who is played by Olivia De Havilland. Her character warns at one point that the clash between the North and the South was unnecessary. It made sense for De Havilland to be cast in this role, given the part she played as a Southern belle in “Gone with the Wind”.

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

Lewrockwell.com, a reactionary and racist website that publishes Counterpunch fave Paul Craig Roberts, published an adulatory review that sided with the film’s political perspective and that coincides with contemporary “revisionism”:

A very telling scene occurs when Brown announces to a group of escaped slaves in his keeping that he is leaving them to continue his work elsewhere. He tells the slaves that they are now free. But the slaves are skeptical and one asks Brown: “Does just saying so make us free? How are we going to live? Get food and shelter?” This is one of the practical considerations that ivory tower abolitionists failed to address. In typical abolitionist fashion, Brown tells the slaves to find other people to help them and dismisses their concern with: “From now on you must fend for yourselves as other free men do.”

When you mull over the arguments regarding how to end slavery presented in Santa Fe Trail, you are left with the disturbing realization that the War Between the States should have been avoided. Throughout the South there was a growing awareness that the institution of slavery could not be sustained much longer. Emancipation could have been accomplished peacefully as it was where it existed everywhere else in the west.

The interesting question, of course, is why the creative team behind “Mission to Moscow” would make such a racist film. You can find an entirely reasonable explanation in the history class notes posted on the Internet by Laura Poisson from Northern Virginia Community College, the same part of the country that Jeb Stuart hailed from:

Pals Custer and Stuart were the good guys in the film—the heroes. They were always shown as perfectly dressed and well-mannered gentlemen and officers, constantly with a smile on their faces. They didn’t mix politics and soldiering; they took their orders and followed through. Their eventual representation of different sides in the Civil War was to show audiences that putting differences aside and working together enables good to prevail over evil.

Why tell the story this way….and why now?

Most Americans in December 1940 weren’t ready to jump into WWII with two feet, but England was getting heavily bombed and people were starting to worry about Hitler. [See below for more detailed history.]

Santa Fe Trail was the first of many Westerns with Civil War characters or plots designed to build “American nationalism.” These movies endeavored to unite Americans of all “regional, ethnic or political” persuasions in order to prepare them for the possibility of entering WWII. The movies defined America’s enemy and showed that the nation needed to stay together in order to “save Democracy.” The U.S. could and did defeat John Brown; they could defeat Hitler if necessary.

Bruce Chadwick, Ph.D. The Reel Civil War, Mythmaking in American Film. NY: Vintage Books 2002

In other words, the political purpose of “Mission to Moscow” and “Santa Fe Trail” were not that far apart: to convey and justify to the American people through the medium of pop culture the overriding foreign policy goals of imperialism.


  1. There was a nice song, by Will Grosz, used in that film Called Along the Santa Fe Trail (just the music as I recall). It was covered by quite a few musicians including the Sons of the Pioneers and Ray Eberle. Here’s a Jimmy Wakely performing it:

    Comment by David — April 10, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

  2. ah, John Brown, after over 150 years, much like Malcolm X, he still remains one of the truest measures of someone’s social and political perspective in the US, all you need to do is ask one question, what do you think about him?

    the controversial David Reynolds’ biography is excellent, especially in regard to his refutation of the purported irrationality of the Brown’s raid and his exploration of the dilemmas associated with the use of violence to achieve political and moral objectives

    Terry Bisson also wrote a delightful short novel, “Fire on the Mountain” based upon an alternative history where Brown’s raid succeeded

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 10, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  3. Interstingly John Brown is often the hero of the so-called “Right to Life” movement and he is used as one of their icons now and again.

    Comment by tialsedov — April 10, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  4. Richard. Aye Verily. Osawatomie Brown is a litmus test. Brown himself often asked people three questions. 1) Do you keep the Sabbath 2) Do you support public education 3) do you oppose slavery. Even Carton’s bio of Brown, *Patriotic Treason* is almost as good as Truman Nelson’s *The Old Man* both are essential reading on Brown and thus American history. Then, Marxmail’s own Mark Lause has an excellent study called *Race and Radicalism in the Union Army* where he traces many of Brown comrades from Kansas as they formed multi-ethnic Black/Indian/White units during the civil war and fought in Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

    John Brown Day should be a national holiday.

    Comment by Sean Noonan — April 11, 2012 @ 1:46 am

  5. According to Nathaniel Philbrick’s recent “The Last Stand” two Cheyenne women placed the arrow up the dead Custer’s penis. They were survivors of an earlier Custer-led massacre of the southern Cheyenne at the Battle of the Washita. The Cheyenne women basically conned the Lakota women into leaving Custer’s corpse to them out of deferrence to Monehtesah, the Cheyenne woman who Custer captured at Washita and turned into his concubine. Before the symbolic act of jamming the arrow up Custer’s penis, the two women pierced his eardrums so that in the afterlife he might hear better as he had “not listened” to the Cheyenne in this one. Philbrick speculates, with good reason, that Custer was killed by a bullet to the temple fired at his own request by his brother in order to escape the wrath of the Lakota. Indian killer, rapist and coward to the end it’s fitting that Custer was played by Reagan.

    Comment by Bob Montgomery — April 11, 2012 @ 2:33 am

  6. “Hollywood History” at its most appalling starting with the title which has nothing whatever to do with ‘Bloody Kansas’, as this 1855-59 period is called. Custer wasn’t even there, he was 16 in 1855 and didn’t graduate from West Point until 1861. Jeb Stuart was there but as a freshly graduated (1854) Lieutennant who didn’t lead anything. The movie makes Flynn and Reagan both Captains and chummy old West Point comrades..which they weren’t. In fact they had never even met each other. Not ‘semi-fictional’ but almost complete bunkum in addition to being an apology for Jim Crow racism…ah but it all ends happily with Kansas protected from the clutches of all those nasty yankee abolitionists and the transcontinental railroad under construction ten years early. And do you know what? The abolitionists won..which you wouldn’t know from this piece of mush-minded slop.

    Comment by John Burton — April 11, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

  7. Some of you who post here write absolute poetry let me tell you. The brilliant sarcasm from people like John Burton and Karl Friedrich make my day.

    Comment by Pandora — April 12, 2012 @ 12:36 am

  8. I remember watching this in the middle of the night 25 years ago when I couldn’t sleep because my wife was pregnant (she was sleeping just fine). Reagan portrayed an affable and accommodating Custer, who nonetheless at some point expressed some doubts, but was easily dissuaded by Stuart (if I recall), who reassured Custer that loyalty trumps conscience. A little too strange for fiction.

    Comment by Rachel Jensen — April 15, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  9. The above comment was by David Green.

    Comment by David Green — April 15, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

  10. After many years in the ‘Industry’ in Hollywood it is near certain if it’s on celluloid its fake… (Yes, there are some films that are true to history but this is not one, Duh) ~ the first clue is Jeb Stuart was at Gettysburg; uhhhh essentially he was MIA and his cavalry ~ he was a loose caboose when it came to Team work ~ he was off on a wild goose chase when he should have been at Gettysburg. And if you didn’t know, more than once Gen Sherman had to put Custer in his place.
    And if it weren’t for Southern military blunders (Early’s failure to engage the routed Sheridans 6th Corp at Cedar Creek) GA Custer would have been in a Military prison and the West would have not had this Racist murderer to ransak it.
    i wouldn’t watch the flick ~ Hollywood makes my stomach turn… although i did see a flick when i was down in Jackson, WY over the last 4 days with the G-kdz called “Mirror Mirror” and therein the Political innuendos were ringing loud and clear of our current slide into serfdom and slavery ~ Julia Roberts was the Villanese and a Lilly Collins the new Queen.
    i’ve been to many Civil War parks and isn’t it so kewl that all of those battles took place in Nat’l parks! but i haven’t been to Harpers Ferry yet and i confess i need to supplement my knowledge of John Brown ~ he lies smoldering in my mind.
    Anyways i sure enjoy the comment section here.
    Just an hour and a half from Custer’s Last Stand

    Comment by Darwin26 — April 18, 2012 @ 6:53 am

  11. Again, for the thousandth time, the South was intent on expanding slavery. And the only reason the Civil War lasted so long was because the Union military leadership was infected with Confederate sympathizers such as McClellan. Once a half decent general, Grant, was put in charge it was over fast. And as a good Southerner, I can say without guilt that Sherman and Reconstruction did not go far enough.

    Comment by purple — April 18, 2012 @ 7:36 am

  12. [“Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders.”]

    I’m not thrilled by the portrayal of blacks in “GONE WITH THE WIND”, but aside from a very brief moment between freed slaves and a carpetbagger, blacks were not generally portrayed that way in the 1939 movie. I think you exaggerated. Now, if you had complained about them being portrayed as ridiculously loyal slaves, I would agree.

    Comment by drush76 — September 20, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

  13. Maybe Django will be more to your taste.

    Comment by Malcolm — January 1, 2013 @ 1:22 am

  14. “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is more to my taste.

    Comment by ladylavinia1932 — November 6, 2014 @ 7:44 pm


    Comment by upthescottish — October 6, 2018 @ 1:10 am

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