‘Santa Fe Trail’ best not taken too seriously

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By Kelly Dolejsi

This season, Mesa Public Library celebrates not only 60 years of filmmaking in New Mexico, but 60 years of sweeping change.

The line-up begins Thursday with “Santa Fe Trail” (1940), a politically incorrect film that could never be made today and continues to offend many people.

Nevertheless, it’s well worth watching because it offers a compelling case that America, for all its faults, has come a remarkably long way.  

It’s also pure Hollywood and therefore funny, sweet and even a little endearing.

“Santa Fe Trail” is set just before the American Civil War and released well after slavery was abolished, but well before the Civil Rights Movement.

In real life, the country was still reeling from news in Europe, still regretting the incredible bloodshed of the Civil War, still split on how African Americans could forge a life in a horribly prejudiced culture.

The film takes an uncomfortably neutral stance.

On one hand, it says, did the abolition of slavery have to be so urgent and violent? Did there have to be war? The film suggests that eventually, most Americans would have come around to the understanding that it’s wrong to enslave other people. Why not just let it work itself out?

On the other hand, it says, sheepishly, those hawks were right.

It pained me to see the abolitionists as the bad guys – as they most certainly are in “Santa Fe Trail.” Raymond Massey plays John Brown, a renegade willing to give his life, as well as the lives of his loyal friends and even his sons, for the cause.

He tried campaigning peacefully to free the slaves for 30 years. He’s done talking.

The good guys – extremely loveable soldiers Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and his inseparable companion George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) – are not pro-slavery.

However, Brown’s methods are against the law and Stuart and Custer will do whatever they can to protect America. They leave the politics to others and head out to Kansas, to a post near the Santa Fe Trail, to defend its residents from the conniving, murderous Brown.

Olivia DeHavill plays “Kit Carson” Halliday, the womanly apple of Stuart’s and Custer’s eyes. She’s great.

The fight scenes offer high tension and a few very exciting moments, but Flynn and Reagan are at their best flirting.

The movie works much, much better if you don’t take it too seriously – if you accept the inevitable racism of a popular film made in 1940 and think, “Gosh, I’m so glad that’s over with,” then sit back and enjoy the antics of two guys competing for love, medals and maybe even a place in history.

The Mesa Public Library Free Film Series will screen “Santa Fe Trail” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs meeting room theater.

Next up in the series is “Salt of the Earth” (1954) on April 2, followed by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) on May 7, “Missouri Breaks” (1974) on June 4, “Atomic City” (1952) as a special event on June 11, “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988) on July 2, “Contact” (1997) on July 30 and a collection of short films made in New Mexico on Sept. 3. All films included in this season’s series were made in New Mexico.

Films are presented free of charge thanks in large part to donations from the Friends of the Library.

The series is co-sponsored by the Los Alamos Arts Council.

Kelly Dolejsi is a member of the Los Alamos Arts Council.