Midnight Rising: "John Brown is one of the most vexing figures in American history. Is he hero or villain? Traitor or martyr? Visionary or maniac?" That is reflected in Michael Curtiz' thought-provoking but occasionally cheesy Santa Fe Trail, which is not about the Trail at all, but instead about some famous Civil War generals before the war, and how they dealt with Brown.
Of course, very little is historically accurate. The main characters are Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan, horribly miscast), who graduate West Point together and are best buddies and rivals for the hand of Olivia de Havilland. In truth, Stuart and Custer didn't even know each other, and Reagan plays Custer as a complete blank, when in truth Custer had the most demerits of any Cadet in West Point history, and thus was very interesting. Also, Custer was not anywhere near Harper's Ferry when Brown was captured. And so on.
But the film itself is interesting because it is 1940, when there is starting to be an awakening of civil rights, at least in some parts of the country, but the film plays it safe often so as not to lose its Southern distribution. Brown, excellently played by Raymond Massey (who played Abraham Lincoln the same year) is presented as a religious nut, but one who happened to be on the right side of history.
Stuart is the hero of the story. He was a patrician Southerner who keeps saying the South will take care of things, which in the long hindsight of history, is not right. Action had to be taken to end slavery. He is contrasted with Van Heflin, a cadet who is drummed out of West Point for spreading Brown pamphlets. He later joins up with Brown but betrays him by giving Stuart the plans for the raid on Harper's Ferry. In reality, it was a botched train that screwed that operation up.
There is a great scene in which the men (all big names, like a supergroup of Civil War heroes), Stuart, Custer, Sheridan, Longstreet, Pickett, Hood, all visit an Indian woman who tells fortune. She tells them they will all be heroes in battle, but as bitter enemies. They laugh it off, but we know the truth.
Santa Fe Trail has many familiar tropes of the genre. There is comic relief with Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn Williams, and De Havilland plays the feisty (fictional) daughter of the real Cyrus Holliday, who advocated the building of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. Flynn and De Havilland were in eight films together, and he gets the girl here, but in reality Stuart married someone else.