Friday, December 10, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Santa Fe Trail (1940) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

SANTA FE TRAIL (1940), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, has happily been rescued from years of indifferent public domain prints by the Warner Archive.

The movie was recently released in an excellent Blu-ray print which is probably the best the film has looked in decades.

Flynn plays Jeb Stuart, with Ronald Reagan as a young George Custer and Raymond Massey as abolitionist John Brown.

Stuart, Custer, and their army comrades deal with Brown's violent raids in the 1850s, doing battle with Brown and his followers on multiple occasions. In their free moments, both Stuart and Custer vie for the hand of pretty, spunky young Kit (de Havilland).

One might say the film was "inspired by" history, as it's not exactly historically accurate. It's also a bit of a curiosity for the modern viewer in terms of some of the leading characters being men who would eventually fight for the Confederacy, including Flynn's Stuart. I'll leave these issues aside and focus on it strictly as movie fiction.

The film itself is frankly only so-so; the top cast does its best but can't make up for Robert Buckner's uninteresting, unbalanced script, which spends way, way too much time with Massey's disturbed, violent Brown. The movie culminates in Brown's execution, which frankly I could have done without. Massey, incidentally, would return to the role 15 years later in SEVEN ANGRY MEN (1955).

Flynn and de Havilland's romantic chemistry is as wonderful as ever, but their story is underdeveloped and mostly serves as light relief to the Brown scenes, with dashing Flynn and appealing Reagan good-naturedly wooing de Havilland. Still, I've returned to this movie multiple times over the years, especially drawn by the two leads, and perhaps hoping that I'll find the movie better than I remembered it.

Ironically, the very next year Flynn would play Custer himself, with de Havilland as his wife. A young, blonde Susan Peters (billed Suzanne Carnahan) shows up in SANTA FE TRAIL near movie's end to ease Custer's romantic disappointment; seeing her in this was a delight.

The excellent cast includes Van Heflin, William Lundigan, Henry O'Neill, Moroni Olsen, Alan Hale (Sr.), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, John Litel, Gene Reynolds, and Alan Baxter.

Many familiar faces are further down in the cast, including Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Charles Middleton, Spencer Charters, Joe Sawyer, David Bruce, Hobart Cavanaugh, Roy Barcroft, and Nestor Paiva.

The production values of this 110-minute film, directed by Michael Curtiz, are also solid, including a musical score by Max Steiner and black and white photography by Sol Polito.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray picture is sharp and a joy to watch, especially remembering that the last time I saw the film the picture was quite fuzzy. Sound quality is outstanding. The disc includes the trailer.

While it's not one of their top films together, fans of Flynn and de Havilland will want to give SANTA FE TRAIL a look, and the movie is also of historical value insofar as it costarred a future President of the United States. I'm delighted that the Warner Archive has given this film such an excellent restoration.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection Amazon Store or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


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