Jack Nilan            EMail : jacknilan@yahoo.com
The Sante Fe Trail and Nationalism

I became interested in The Santa Fe Trail (1940) again when I started to do some reading on John Brown. I had seen almost all of Errol Flynn's movies years ago, including this one.

As I watched the movie I saw that it was very carefully crafted not to bruise Southerner feelings. It is easy to see how in 1940 with the world at war and the America teetering on the brink, how feelings of unity were important to everyone in the United States.

The movie starts out in 1854 at West Point with graduating cadets J.E.B. Stuart, George Custer, George Pickett, Phillip Sheridan, James Longstreet, and John Hood. Out of this group only J.E.B. Stuart really graduated that year. Custer, who was to become the youngest US general in 1863 at age 23, didn't graduate until 1861. Longstreet graduated in 1842, Pickett in 1846, and Hood and Sheridan in 1853. The movie showed how these young men from all over the country got along well and were only interested in serving their country.

When J.E.B. Stuart, who is played by Errol Flynn, is questioned about the problem of slavery he said : "I know the truth of the problem far better then you. The South will settle it, in its own time and in its own way." Stuart, on whose biography the movie is based, is seen as the voice of reason in the movie. Other voices of reason will be Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Lt. Robert E. Lee who would later lead the raid that captured John Brown at Harper's Ferry.

At the commencement ceremony, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis tells the graduates that :

"You men have but one duty alone, America. With your unswerving loyalty and the grace of God, our nation shall have no fears, for the future and your lives will have been spent in the noblest of all causes, the defense of the rights of man".
The movie attempts to portray Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as men whose primary concerns were the Union.

John Brown is portrayed as a wild eyed fanatic, whose own young son turns on him because of the violence he has done. He says : "He's changed since Pottawatomie. Those people that he killed got down on their knees and begged for their lives." This scene was a fictional creation of the movie to show the fanaticism of Brown. If his own son would turn against than certainly we should also.

In contrast to Brown, J.E.B. Stuart says in response to a question of how the slavery issue will be settled : "Why in blood? The people of Virginia have considered a resolution to abolish slavery for a long time. They sense that it is a moral wrong and the rest of the South will follow Virginia's example. All they ask is time."The movie is very clearly pointing out that the Civil War was not necessary. The slavery issue would have resolved itself.

Later, J.E.B. Stuart asks a former slave who is tending to his wound what made her leave home.

"Well, old John Brown said he gonna give us freedom but, shuckin, if this here Kansas is freedom then I ain't got no use for it, no sir."
Her friend than says : "Me neither. I just want to get back home to Texas and set till kingdom come.
The movie shows the slaves as being happier and better off before fanatical John Brown set them free. As John Brown is led to hang Jefferson Davis says : "So perish all such enemies of the Union. All such fools of the human race."

In the years before 1960 most portrayals of slavery in cinema were like it was in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. The slaves were happy and contented and too simple to live on their own. The Civil War was unnecessary and brought on by a handful of fanatics in the North.

In his book, the Reel Civil War, Bruce Chadwick points out that

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.

I think this movie and others like it, including Gone With the Wind and The Prisoner of Shark Island portrayed the antebellum South in a positive light in the interest of national unity. There may have been a hidden cost, however. By portraying slavery and black oppression through rose colored glasses they may have delayed the Civil Rights movement and along with it, equal rights for blacks in this country.

I also think there is going to be a reevaluation of John Brown sometime soon in the movies. It was important in the years following the Civil War to accentuate our commonality and stay away from divisive topics. But enough time has passed. The slaves weren't better off as slaves. The South had a lot of time to deal with the issue. Lincoln was not going to go to war over slavery. John Brown was, probably, a great American hero and its about time that, we as a country, acknowledge it.