Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 5, 2021)
Following his success with 1940’s swashbuckler The Sea Hawk, Errol Flynn turned toward another genre. That same year, he acted in a mix of war, Western and drama, 1940’s Santa Fe Trail - and scored another hit.
Set in 1854, Jeb Stuart (Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) graduate from West Point Military Academy. The neophyte Second Lieutenants find themselves assigned to Fort Leavenworth in the violently contested Kansas territory.
In this job, they find themselves confronted with abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey) and his followers. These conflicts ensue over a span of years and eventually point toward the ignition of the US Civil War.
Spoiler alert? I hope not, as I assume anyone who reads this understands that Civil War tore apart the United States in the 1860s.
Of course, I expect less familiarity with the story on display, even if it involves well-known figures like Stuart, Brown and Custer. Given that Trail takes many liberties with the facts, it might be best to remain unacquainted with the history, as the film doesn’t try too hard to stick with what actually happened.
That doesn’t need to become a fatal flaw, as most “based on true events” movies depart from reality. In this case, the bigger question becomes whether or not Trail delivers a compelling tale.
No, and that remains the case even if I separate Trail from its misguided perspective. The film firmly lands on the wrong side of history, as it takes an attitude that at least condones slavery in a passive manner and it condemns Brown’s abolitionist efforts.
Historians still debate Brown’s tactics, but whatever the truth may’ve been, Trail takes too much of a one-sided view. It paints him as a literal wild-eyed fanatic, one happy to sacrifice the Blacks he claims to want to save – and even his own son – to advance his cause.
There’s no nuance here, and the depiction of those who defend slavery as heroes – mainly Stuart – can be tough to take. Again, Trail attempts to straddle the lines, as it allows Stuart to nod toward the direction of “slavery is bad”, but all his actions act to support its existence, so these limp efforts don’t work.
Of course, it doesn’t help that we know Stuart would go on to serve as a general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Whatever the proponents of the “noble cause” want us to believe, the rebels were traitors, and efforts to signify otherwise don’t fly, so the presence of Stuart as our lead “hero” become problematic.
Even if we ignore the movie’s racism and generally misguided feel, Trail simply never becomes a particularly coherent or interesting movie. It mixes melodrama, action, romance and comedy into one awkward, jerky package that doesn’t come together in a satisfying manner.
Boy, do the stabs at laughs seem superfluous and gratuitous. The movie forces two semi-dimwitted characters on us just for purported humor, and these elements always feel silly and aimless.
The love triangle that involves Stuart, Custer and Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland) comes across like little more than unnecessary padding. These scenes add nothing to the characters or the story, but I guess those involved felt the movie needed something to appeal to the ladies in the audience.
The movie’s racism and uncomfortable attempt to rewrite history become its most problematic elements. However, even if one ignores these, Trail simply never becomes an interesting film.