A Man Named Jeb
The DVD case for my copy of "Santa Fe Trail" describes it as a biographical look at Jeb Stuart. Now as a Brit whose history education understandably didn't cover the American Civil War or the events leading up to it the name Jeb Stuart means nothing to me. In fact being a sort of biopic of Jeb Stuart was not the reason for me watching "Santa Fe Trail" but because it starred Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Ronald Reagan and Van Heflin amongst other well known names and faces. And from what I understand watching it because of the stars is not a bad thing as evidently there are numerous historical inaccuracies to the story and the life of Jeb Stuart.
Having graduated from West Point Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) are sent to Fort Leavenworth a frontier garrison where they both rival each other for the attention of 'Kit Carson' Holliday (Olivia de Havilland - Gone with the Wind). But they also have other issues to concern themselves with in particular Abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey - How the West Was Won) whose support is growing for his cause to end slavery.
So not being an aficionado on either Jeb Stuart or American history I can't tell you whether the story is for the most accurate or not, but I can say that other reviewers who know their history have pointed out errors and inaccuracies. As such I can't but help feel that if you watched "Santa Fe Trail" as some form of historical re-enactment you will only end up disappointed. I also feel that if you watch it as a biopic of Jeb Stuart you will also be disappointed because there is no real depth to this look at Stuart. We basically skip through a story where he graduates West point with several other historical characters and became a hero as he took the fight to notorious Abolitionist John Brown at the same time falling for the delightful 'Kit Carson' Holliday. It's all incredibly slim with no depth of character, no explanation for his emotions and actions and basically comes across as almost as any other heroic character from an American Civil War movie.
But if like me you end up watching "Santa Fe Trail" because of the star names then it ironically sort of works. There maybe no depth to the character of Jeb Stuart but Errol Flynn brings him to life as this hero style character allowing him to ooze charm which may or probably not be factually true. Ronald Reagan is just as enjoyable as his friend George Custer and whilst it is the weakest of romantic sub plots watching Custer and Stuart rival each other for the hand of 'Kit Carson' Holliday provides a pleasant and amusing distraction. Talking of which whilst 'Kit Carson' Holliday is another wafer thin cliche of a character Olivia de Havilland and her wonderful smile lights up the screen.
The sad thing is that Flynn, Reagan and De Havilland not so much go through the motions but deliver their characters in a generic fashion and whilst entertaining are nothing special. Special is what you have to say is Raymond Massey characterization of John Brown as it is multi layered and full of passion, basically he breathes life into the character. But despite being a truly brilliant performance it then feels out of place when the rest of the cast are delivering cliche characters.
In a similar manner to watching "Santa Fe Trail" for its stars, just watching it for some western/war action it also sort of works. You couldn't say the action is the most dramatic and often feels rather routine but it has its moments such as a scene which sees Stuart escaping the clutches of John Brown and Rader only to find himself stuck in a burning barn. And thankfully there are a few action scenes scattered throughout "Santa Fe Trail" so that you're never too far from a moment of drama rather than history.
What this all boils down to is that for me "Santa Fe Trail" didn't really work as either a historical re-enactment or biopic, although I know a little more than I did. But it does work as an action drama with a few stars attached and it is watching it for its entertainment value rather than anything else is what I recommend.