‘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.

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