Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,

While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;

But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,

His soul is marching on.

This is an analysis of the Michael Curtiz film Santa Fe Trail that might resemble the analysis of John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln, a paradigmatic object of cinematic critical analysis.

Young Mr. Lincoln (YML) and ideological analysis: a reconsideration (with many asides) by Chuck Kleinhans  Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013)

In 1970 the editors of Cahiers du cinéma published “Young Mr. Lincoln, texte collectif,” an article written by all the editors, which, upon translation into English in Screen (UK) as “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” in 1972, became a landmark essay in Anglo-American film theory. The essay was quickly referenced, commented on, and republished repeatedly in film theory anthologies. The commentaries produced a cottage industry of new studies of the 1939 film.

My concern here is to mark the place of the original essay and its subsequent discussion. It needs some context for a new generation, some 40 years later.


Because the French article became so central to key issues in emerging film studies, today’s reader finds many paths leading through and out of the essay, many tangents that turn out to be useful for grasping the essay in the abstract and in history. And it also lets us think about the historical vicissitudes of film theorizing. Reconsideration today also aptly opens further thought in terms of Spielberg’s Lincoln and the larger project of ideological analysis.

In summary, Cahiers argues that the film’s “ideological project” (validating a Lincoln myth to serve an electoral aim) is contradicted in at least five ways:

  1. There are significant distortions such as deception by shot and editing in the murder scene.
  2. There are omissions such as scenes that would be needed for the crime thriller genre but which would have lessened the presentation of Lincoln’s omnipotence: for example, he never confronts the accused about what happened, what they know.
  3. The film relies on exaggerated accentuation as seen in the very heightened drama of the final scenes at the trial and the aftermath.
  4. There is a scriptural violence, invoking God, and Law, Truth, and Family in a distorted way.
  5. The film’s project aims at a religious (Puritan) sense of election, that Lincoln’s place is predetermined, but it must maintain suspense and a presentation of free choice in order to maintain basic narrative interest.

So if you haven’t yet dozed off, my project-variation on that magisterial, discipline-defining method for Young Mr. Lincoln (YML) would be to look at the divisions represented by the European war as opposed to the electoral history of YML as a Republican party film, much like today’s White House is a peculiarly odd collection of RW film and television producers.

As a Michael Curtiz film, Santa fe Trail (SFT) has a different directorial perspective than John Ford’s YML. SFT is a more historically positioned text rather than the more mythological YML because it includes secession, slavery, Bloody Kansas, John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. Unlike YML’s God, Law, Truth, and Family, SFT has more to do with religious extremism, insurrection, authority, and the problems of historical revision, especially considering the ideological problems of intersectionality in choosing a revolutionary path. SFT however, is no Django Unchained, but as a historically referential text, it even resembles some contemporary discourses.

Santa Fe Trail (1940) Trailer

On the less likable side of things, this film has caught a lot of flack from modern viewers for appearing “pro-Southern” or even “pro-slaveowner.” It’s easy to see how the film would be interpreted this way. A big show is made of “killer John Brown versus the loyal, wholesome cadet.” Less-than-favorable stereotyping and bits of dialogue regarding slavery pop up often enough to make the modern viewer feel uncomfortable.

Pals Custer and Stuart were the good guys in the film—the heroes. They were always shown as perfectly dressed and well-mannered gentlemen and officers, constantly with a smile on their faces. They didn’t mix politics and soldiering; they took their orders and followed through. Their eventual representation of different sides in the Civil War was to show audiences that putting differences aside and working together enables good to prevail over evil.
Why tell the story this way….and why now?

Most Americans in December 1940 weren’t ready to jump into WWII with two feet, but England was getting heavily bombed and people were starting to worry about Hitler. [See below for more detailed history.]
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.

Bruce Chadwick, Ph.D. The Reel Civil War, Mythmaking in American Film. NY: Vintage Books 2002

The film loosely follows the life of J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Among its sub-plots include a romance with the fictional Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), friendship with George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan), and battles against abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey).



Run time 1:49:26
Production Company Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.
Audio/Visual sound, Black and White

War in Europe:

On December 20, the day of the New York release of the film Santa Fe Trail, the Roosevelt administration announced the establishment of an Office of Production Management, the goal of which was to expand defense efforts and speed military aid to the British and other non-Axis powers.


On December 21 the German government denounced the act as a form of “moral aggression.”

On December 29, President Roosevelt, in a “Fireside Chat,” (his second of the year—the previous one was in May 1940) called for a huge war production effort that would make the United States “the great arsenal of democracy”:  planes, ships, guns, and munitions for those countries fighting for Democracy.

http://libraryautomation.com/nymas/americafirst.html   http://www.indiana.edu/~league/1940.htm


  • December 2, 2020