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THE SANTA FE TRAIL. JOHN BROWN, AND THE COMING OF THE CIVIL WAR by Larry J. Easley Throughout the eighty-year history of the American film industry, the American academic historian has paid little attention to the history that is taught on the screen in the name of entertainment. Historians have typically assumed that the Hollywood version of history has so little to offer the classroom teacher that its use in an academic environment is inappropriate. In the last ten years these views started to crumble as more historians have turned to the examination of the entertainment film as a research and teaching tool and as a device for the study of popular concepts about the past. The 1940 Warner Brothers film, Santa Fe Trail , provides an interesting example that may be used with excellent success even on a limited budget. The film is relatively unknown even though it stars such Hollywood figures as Erro! Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Olivia De Havilland, Van Heflin, and Raymond Massey. Santa Fe Trail offers possibilities for the examination of the myth of the ante-bellum South, the Civil War, the western genre, the black experience, and the adventure-melodrama. Taking wide liberties with historic reality, director Michael Curtiz and screen writer Robert Buckner wrote a powerful statement on the events and causes of the most violent conflict in American history. Using segments of the actual biography of Virginia born J. E. B. Stuart (Flynn), the screen play asks the reader to pretend that some of the most famous generals of the Civil War all graduated in the same West Point class and were all assigned to the same post upon graduation. These future generals (George Custer, John Hood, James Longstreet, Laxxy J. EaAley io a membex oi the Vepaxtment o{¡ Hiòtoxy at Southeaòt Miòòouni State Linivexòity, Cape Gixaxdeau, Wiòòouni. 25 George Pickett, and Phil Sheridan) have become fast friends despite the growing problems between the sections. Even in the tranquility of West Point it is impossible to escape the storm clouds on the horizon. Cadet Carl Rader (Heflin) has been sent to West Point as an agent of the abolitionist crusade to gain recruits and learn the military skills the anti-slavery movement will need in its fight. The fun-loving Stuart and fanatical Rader come into physical conflict after the Virginian objects to Rader' s harangue to the other cadets in the barracks. Stuart believes that only the South understands slavery and will, in their own time, solve the problem. It is outside agitation, and not the institution of slavery, that is the cause of sectional discord. The Commandant of West Point, Robert E. Lee, expels Rader from the academy and informs the other seven cadets that as punishment they will be assigned to "suicide station" at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory. They will replace seven officers who have been killed in the fighting with John Brown (Massey). One of the cadets, Robert HoIl iday, is from Kansas Territory. His sister, Kit (De Havilland), becomes the center for a playful romantic battle between George Custer (Reagan) and Stuart. HoIl iday' s father, Cyrus, runs a freight line to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His dreams of building a railroad have been shattered by the attacks on peaceful settlers of Kansas mounted by Brown and his followers. Custer and Stuart meet the mad abolitionist when Brown, Rader, and a group of forty armed recruits attempt to take delivery on crates of "bibles" shipped to Kansas by Dr. J. Boyce Russell, a leading Northern religious leader. The rifles are discovered, a gun battle ensues, and Brown's son Jason is captured by the cavalry after .being shot by Carl Rader. Later, as the child dies, he reveals the real madness of his father's schemes and asks that the killing be stopped. Brown's headquarters, Custer and Stuart discover, is in Palmyra, Kansas, at the home of Shubel Morgan. On the journey to Palmyra the cavalry enters Delaware Crossing, a small Free Soil community devastated by Brown. The film has already revealed that Brown and his men have massacred Southern settlers at Osawatomie but now, we find, he will even slaughter...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 25-33
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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