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Santa Fe Trail is a 1940 American western film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan and Alan Hale. Written by Robert Buckner, the film is about the abolitionist John Brown and his campaign against slavery prior to the American Civil War. In a subplot, J. E. B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer compete for the hand of Kit Carson Holliday.

Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe Trail (film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by Robert Buckner
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by George Amy
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • December 28, 1940 (1940-12-28) (USA)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1 million[1]
Box office 2,147,663 admissions (France, 1947)[2]
Santa Fe Trail

The film was one of the top-grossing films of the year, and the seventh Flynn–de Havilland collaboration. Its content has little relevance to the actual Santa Fe Trail. Outdoor scenes were filmed at the Lasky Movie Ranch in the Lasky Mesa area of the Simi Hills in the western San Fernando Valley, California.[3]



At West Point Military Academy in 1854, cadet Carl Rader—an agent of John Brown (Van Heflin)—is dishonorably discharged for distributing anti-slavery pamphlets. His classmates Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) become second lieutenants and are posted to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, the most dangerous duty in the army—an assignment they relish. On the way to Kansas, Custer and Stuart meet Cyrus K. Holliday, in charge of building the railroad to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and his daughter Kit (Olivia de Havilland), with whom both officers fall in love.

The Kansas Territory is bloodstained and war-torn, a victim of John Brown's (Raymond Massey) relentless crusade against slavery. Meanwhile, Rader has enlisted as a mercenary in Brown's army, which has been terrorizing the countryside. During Brown's attack on a freight wagon under the protection of the U.S. Army, Stuart and Custer capture Brown's injured son Jason (Gene Reynolds) and, before dying, the troubled boy informs them about his father's hideout at Shubel Morgan's ranch in Palmyra. In disguise, Stuart rides into Palmyra, the center of the Underground Railroad, but Brown's men spot his horse's army brand. He is captured and taken to Brown at gunpoint. Attempting to escape, Stuart is trapped in a burning barn but is saved as Custer leads the cavalry to the rescue, driving Brown into seclusion.

Three years later, in 1859, believing that Brown's force has been broken, Stuart and Custer are sent back to Washington, D.C., where Stuart proposes to Kit. However, Brown is planning to re-ignite war by raiding the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. When Brown refuses to pay Rader for his services, Rader rides to Washington to alert Stuart of Brown's plans, and the troops arrive just in time to crush the rebellion. Brown is then tried for treason by the state of Virginia and hanged. The movie ends with the marriage of Stuart and Kit.


Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Santa Fe Trail


Massey's John Brown eagerly endorses breaking apart the union of the United States. The movie was made on the eve of the United States' entry into World War II, and its tone and political subtext express a desire to reconcile the nation's dispute over slavery which brought about the American Civil War and appeal to moviegoers in both the southern and northern United States. The American Civil War and abolition of slavery are presented as an unnecessary tragedy caused by an anarchic madman. The heroic protagonists such as Flynn's Jeb Stuart and Reagan's Custer seem unable to conceive how the issue of slavery could place them at odds in the near future, even though by 1859 hostility between the pro/anti-slavery states had reached a boiling point.[citation needed][4]

Black people are presented as passive and clueless; slaves brought by John Brown's Underground Railroad to the North are merely following orders of the abolitionists, without any motive to flee slavery. They muse about the good old times when they lived happily in the south. Trapped in a burning shed, they need to be rescued by a white man.

This film takes substantial liberties with the historical facts:

  • Stuart and Custer did not attend West Point at the same time and were never personally acquainted.
  • Stuart graduated from West Point in 1854 and Custer graduated in 1861.[5]
  • Jason Brown was not killed in Kansas. One of Brown's other sons, Frederick, was shot by Reverend White.[6]
  • Stuart served in the 1st Cavalry Regiment and Custer served in the 2nd and 5th Cavalry Regiments.
  • Custer was never in Kansas Territory.
  • The US Cavalry did not charge John Brown's fort; it was taken by US Marines who incurred two casualties (one dead, one wounded)


At one stage Randolph Scott was mentioned for the lead.[7] However it soon became a vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.[8]

John Wayne was mentioned as a possibility for Flynn's costar.[9]

Dennis Morgan was originally announced for the role of George Custer.[10] Van Heflin was signed to play the villain following his success on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story; it was his first movie since 1937.[11] Morgan was borrowed to appear in Kitty Foyle and was replaced by Ronald Reagan shortly before filming began.

Filming started in July 1940, delayed by a recurrence of Flynn's malaria.[12]

The film is not to be confused with the Raoul Walsh movie They Died with Their Boots On, released the following year, in which Flynn plays Custer, also with de Havilland as his leading lady.


The film was premiered in Santa Fe over a three-day festival, featuring a large number of celebrities.[13][14][15] There were 250 guests and two special trains, for a total cost of $50,000— shared between Warners and Santa Fe Railroad.[16]

Box officeEdit

The film made a profit of $1.48 million.[17]


In its initial release, Warner Brothers premiered this film in some large cities with an experimental sound system called Vitasound, not stereophonic but aiming to create a greater dynamic sound range for battlefield action and dramatic music.


Santa Fe Trail entered the public domain in 1968 when United Artists Television (then the owners of the pre-1950 WB library, inherited from Associated Artists Productions) failed to renew the copyright. As a result, the film became widely available on VHS, LaserDisc and DVD as well as freely available for internet downloading. In 1988 a colorized version was produced by Color Systems Technology for Hal Roach Studios, and released on VHS (VidAmerica, 1990). Turner Entertainment also released a higher-quality VHS than was previously available (MGM/UA Home Video, 1998). Today, Turner's library is part of the television division of Warner Bros., the original distributor. Though not fully restored, higher-quality editions have more recently been released in Germany on DVD (Intergroove, 2011) and Blu-ray (WME Home Entertainment, 2017).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Glancy, H. Mark. "Warner Bros film grosses, 1921–51." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. March 1995.
  2. ^ Box office figures for 1947 France at Box Office Story
  3. ^ access date:5/15/2010. 'Lasky Movie Ranch' set photos
  4. ^ Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer * Clifford McCarty, The Films of Errol Flynn, Citadel Press, 1969 p 99
  5. ^ 'Santa Fe Trail' Finds Errol Flynn as J. E. B. Stuart: Hollywood on the Trail of the Fifties By Frank Daugherty Special to The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 09 Aug 1940: 2.
  6. ^ 1948-, Reynolds, David S., (2006). John Brown, abolitionist : the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded civil rights (1st Vintage books ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0375726152. OCLC 75966355. 
  7. ^ Churchill, Douglas W. "Screen News Here and in Hollywood: Randolph Scott Gets Lead in 'Santa Fe' That Warners Listed for Errol Flynn. Mae West Picture opens: 'My Little Chickadee,' in which W. C. Fields is co-starred, at the Roxy Today. Special to The New York Times, (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 15 March 1940: 27.
  8. ^ Schallert, Edwin. "Howard, Drew to Share Spotlight in 'Rangers'". Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, California] 13 April 1940: 14.
  9. ^ Parsons, Louella O. "Close-Ups and Long-Shots Of the Motion Picture Scene". The Washington Post (1923-1954) [Washington, D.C] 25 June 1940: 11.
  10. ^ Power, Darnell Attain Third Feature as Team Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 01 July 1940: A10.
  11. ^ News of the Screen: Van Heflin Signed for Villain in 'Santa Fe Trail'—'Fugitive From Justice,' 'Wagons Westward' Today Of Local Origin Special to The New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 6 July 1940: 9.
  12. ^ Schallert, Edwin. "John Garfield to Play Nijinsky Role on Stage: Moreno 'Sinners' Actor Roland 'Cavalier' Lead Le Baron Seeks Murphy Republic After Baker Stars Aid Cow's Debut." Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif], 12 July 1940: A10.
  13. ^ "Again the Old Santa Fe Trail". Special to The New York Times, (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 8 December 1940: 188.
  14. ^ Schallert, Edwin. "Celebrities En Route to Film Event". Los Angeles Times (1923-Current file) [Los Angeles, California] 13 December 1940: 28.
  15. ^ Daugherty, Frank. "Santa Fe Greets 'Trail' Film With a Three-Day Fiesta: Parade of Indian Tribes, Official Reception Held". Special to The Christian Science Monitor, (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 14 December 1940: 4.
  16. ^ Churchill, Douglas W. "The Warners Go Tenting on the Santa Fe Trail: And Erudite Indians Obediently Grunt 'Ugh' for Visiting Firemen—Other Items. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 22 Dec 1940: 103.
  17. ^ Glancy, H. Mark. "Warner Bros film grosses, 1921-51." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. March 1995

Further readingEdit

  • Morsberger, Robert E. "Slavery and 'The Santa Fe Trail' or, John Brown on Hollywood's Sour Apple Tree," American Studies (1977) 18#2 pp 87–98. online, full-scale scholarly analysis of John Brown and other distorted historical themes

External linksEdit