Ronald Reagan Appears as George Armstrong Custer in "Santa Fe Trail"

Santa Fe Trail is a 1940 western film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Despite glaring historical inaccuracies and racist overtones, the film was one of the top-grossing films of the year, being the seventh Flynn-de Havilland collaboration. The film also has nothing to do with its namesake, the famed Santa Fe Trail except that the trail started in Missouri. Instead, it follows the life of Jeb Stuart, a cavalry commander (and future Confederate Army general).

The film entered the public domain in 1968, after United Artists failed to renew copyright.


The film purports to follow the life of J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Among its sub-plots are 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). Among the many glaring inaccuracies has Stuart leading a cavalry charge against John Brown's "fort" in Harpers Ferry. In fact Stuart was at Harper's Ferry-but John Brown was captured in an infantry assault by US Marines under command of US Army Colonel Robert Edward Lee. Another inaccuracy is the film has Stuart, Custer, John Bell Hood, George Pickett, James Longstreet, and Philip Sheridan all having been part of the West Point graduating class of 1854. In fact, Longstreet was of the class of 1842, Pickett was of the class of 1846, Sheridan and Hood were of the class of 1853, Stuart 1854, and Custer not until 1861-a year early because of the onset of the Civil War.

In addition, Stuart and Custer are shown to be the best of friends when in fact they did not know each other. Shortly after graduation, Stuart transferred to the newly formed 1st U.S. Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth (not the 2nd Cavalry as the movie states) and was involved in Kansas during the fighting there. After his graduation from West Point in 1861, Custer joined the 2nd Cavalry Regiment during its invasion of Virginia in the first months of the war. They did encounter each other in a number of battles during the war including Brandy Station, Hanover and Yellow Tavern where Stuart was mortally wounded.

In the movie, Brown's son Oliver is shot and killed in Kansas when in fact he was killed inside the Engine House at Harpers Ferry. Another son Jason is portrayed as a 15-year old (played by Gene Reynolds) who is accidentally shot by Van Heflin's character and dies in Kansas. At the time of Bleeding Kansas, Jason was around 34 years old. Though involved in his father's abolitionist work, he did not die in Kansas and was not involved at Harpers Ferry.

Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis is shown inaccurately ordering Lee to Harpers Ferry when it was in fact President James Buchanan. At the time of Harpers Ferry, Davis was no longer Secretary of War but a senator from Mississippi.


The movie confronts the multiple perspectives to issues leading up to the Civil War. It is drastically critical of John Brown,[citation needed] but realistic in its portray of his willingness to destroy the Union and his choice of terrorist activities. It also shows accurately mixed reactions by slaves, from the frightened to the content. While some of the African-Americans rejoice at their freedom, others find that they might have had greater safety in their life as it was.[citation needed]

Massey's John Brown eagerly endorses breaking apart the union of the United States. The movie was made on the eve of World War II, and its tone and political subtext express a desire to reconcile the nation's dispute over slavery which brought about the American Civil War and appeal to moviegoers in both the southern and northern United States. The American Civil War and abolition of slavery are presented as an unnecessary tragedy caused by an anarchic madman. The heroic protagonists such as Flynn's Jeb Stuart and Reagan's Custer seem unable to conceive how the issue of slavery could place them at odds in the near future, even though by 1859 hostility between the pro/anti-slavery states had reached a boiling point.[citation needed]


In its initial release, Warner Brothers premiered this film in some large cities with an experimental sound system called Vitasound. Not a stereophonic system as sometimes reported, Vitasound employed a second track between the regular soundtrack and the sprocket holes. This second track would control additional speakers in the theater to create louder sounds for battlefield scenes, and so forth. (Source: IMDb) This system was unrelated to Disney's Fantasound system which had just been used for roadshow engagements of Fantasia, released 13 November 1940.


* Errol Flynn as James "Jeb" Stuart
* Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Holliday
* Raymond Massey as John Brown
* Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer
* Alan Hale as Tex Bell
* William Lundigan as Bob Holliday
* Van Heflin as Carl Rader
* Gene Reynolds as Jason Brown
* Henry O'Neill as Cyrus K. Holliday
* Guinn Williams as Windy Brody
* Alan Baxter as Oliver Brown
* Moroni Olsen as Robert E. Lee
* Erville Alderson as Jefferson Davis