Kit Carson—John Hall, Dana Andrews, Lynn Bari, Ward Bond, Harold Huber, Clayton Moore, Raymond Hatton, Charles Stevens (1940; Dir: George B. Seitz)
Trapper Kit Carson and his men are attacked by Shoshones with Mexican guns near Fort Bridger, Wyoming, losing two years’ worth of pelts. The only survivors are Carson and his friends Ape (Ward Bond) and Lopez (Harold Huber). As they straggle into Fort Bridger, they find waiting for them a platoon of soldiers under Capt. John C. Fremont (Dana Andrews) and a wagon train for California led by Paul Terry (Clayton Moore), both of whom want Carson to guide them to California. Carson refuses until he meets Dolores Murphy, a wealthy and attractive California heiress returning home. Then he signs up as wagonmaster.
Carson has continual disagreements with Fremont as to how to go about things as they move westward, and Carson keeps finding evidence that the Mexican army in California is providing guns to the Shoshones to keep Americans out. Both Fremont and Carson are interested in Dolores Murphy, too. As they approach the Sierra Nevadas, Fremont wants to take the direct pass into California; Carson warns that it leads into an area that would make for a good ambush and advises a route 60 miles longer, but safer.
Fremont doesn’t listen, and his platoon ends up boxed in by a Shoshone-triggered landslide. While the wagon train is under attack, too, Paul Terry sacrifices himself to warn Carson, and Carson rescues the soldiers by blasting them out with a wagon-load of gunpowder. Once everybody is in California at the Murphy hacienda, Gen. Castro (C. Henry Gordon) decides to attack the American haciendas while their owners are attending a fiesta at Murphy’s. Mexican Gen. Mariano Vallejo (Lew Merrill) is captured and tips off Carson, who rides to warn the Americans. Vallejo switches sides, as he realizes that Castro has it in for him, too. Meanwhile, Carson decides he has no suitable life to offer a woman and leaves Dolores for Fremont to marry.
While Carson, Ape and Lopez put up a mock defense of the Murphy hacienda against Castro, Fremont and Murphy attack Castro from the rear and defeat him. They set up the Bear Flag Republic and receive word that the U.S. and California are at war, making this about 1846. Ape is killed in the Mexican attack while setting off an explosive signal, and Fremont talks Carson (apparently) into the realization that Dolores can only be happy with Carson.
This film makes a hash of both geography and history. Carson started working for Fremont as a guide in the 1842 when the fur-trapping was dying out, guiding him on four expeditions in California and the Great Basin. While they were both in California while it was breaking away from Mexico during the Mexican War, they were on opposite ends of the state. Carson was working as a courier and guide for Gen. Stephen Kearney across the southwest border to San Diego. Fremont was rather famously married at the time, to Jessie Benton, daughter of the expansionist Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. It was the writing and promotion of Jessie Benton Fremont that made her husband famous, in fact. Kit Carson was married at least three times beginning in 1835, to an Arapaho woman, a Cheyenne woman and finally to Josefa Jaramillo in Taos, New Mexico, in 1843.
This is one of the early films to make use of Monument Valley and southern Utah, the year after John Ford made Stagecoach there. Although stunning, it doesn’t really look much like the country around Fort Bridger or California. Aside from Ward Bond as Ape (who strangely uses a boomerang several times), none of the cast was much associated with westerns. Half-Tahitian actor Jon Hall is better remembered for such exotic fare as Hurricane, although he would show up again in a 1947 remake of Last of the Mohicans (entitled Last of the Redmen). Dana Andrews had a small parts in The Westerner, Belle Starr and The Ox-Bow Incident (he was the subject of a lynching) about this time, and he returned briefly to westerns in the 1950s (see Three Hours to Kill, Strange Lady in Town and Comanche, for example). Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens (as Charley Stevens) has one of his juicier parts as Lt. Ruiz, who is working directly with the Shoshones. Clayton Moore went on to his greatest fame as television’s Lone Ranger a decade later, and Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels (later Tonto) has an uncredited bit part here, too. Director George B. Seitz was coming to the end of a long career and is better remembered for making several Andy Hardy movies about this time.
Jon Hall as Kit Carson; and the real Kit Carson.
If you’d like to read about the historical Kit Carson, see Hampton Sides’ recent Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West (2006). Kit Carson had been the subject of popular attention beginning with dime novels in the 1840s. He showed up in movies beginning with an early short in 1903, and would move into television in the 1950s. In black and white, at 97 minutes.