Tag Archives: Slavery

Santa Fe Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Trail—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Guinn Williams, Alan Hale, Moroni Olsen, Ward Bond (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)


Around 1940, the dashing Errol Flynn was the star of several good westerns:  Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941) are the best known.  Two of these were directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, the director most closely associated with with Flynn. Olivia de Havilland and Flynn formed one of the greatest romantic on-screen partnerships from the golden age of Hollywood, and this was the seventh of their nine movies together.  And Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a frequent drinking partner of Flynn’s) had appeared in several movies with Flynn (Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City), mostly as quasi-comic relief.  Clearly Warner Bros. was hoping a formula that had worked before would produce box office gold again.

This one has nothing to do with Santa Fe and little to do with the famous Santa Fe Trail.  It should have been titled “Chasing John Brown.”  In 1854, the arguments over slavery that had led to the new potential state being called “Bleeding Kansas” were also manifest among the cadets at West Point.  Rader (Van Heflin) is taken with the sentiments of the fiery abolitionist John Brown; he is opposed, both personally and politically, to J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) of Virginia.  Stuart is supported by several other cadets, including George Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, John Bell Hood and James Longstreet (all names that will become famous as generals in the upcoming Civil War).  When Rader and Stuart are involved in a fight, West Point Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee (character actor Moroni Olsen) banishes Rader for his divisive political activities.  Stuart and his friends are punished by being sent to the most dangerous duty in the army at that time:  the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  They don’t mind at all.


Young lieutenants Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (Ronald Reagan) make the acquaintance of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland).

Leavenworth is the western terminus of the railroad, although stage magnate Cyrus Holliday hopes to build toward Santa Fe when it is safe enough.  It isn’t yet, partly because of Indians but mostly because of John Brown and his strikes against supporters of slavery, such as the notorious raid on Ossawatomie.  Part of the Second Cavalry’s mission is to disband any armed groups, like Brown or his opponents.  Stuart and Custer are both interested in Holliday’s daughter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), and are detailed to join a detail protecting a Holliday freighting column bound for Santa Fe.  A couple of days out, they encounter a Mr. Smith, who wants to take delivery of eight crates of Bibles.  One of the crates is dropped and breaks open, revealing rifles instead of Bibles.  Mr. Smith is in fact John Brown, and one of his men is the disgraced Rader.  As Brown and his men make their getaway (with some of the rifles), Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds), driving a wagon, is shot by Rader in the melee.

Back in Leavenworth, Jason reveals the location of Brown’s base in Palmyra before dying.  As Stuart investigates out of uniform, he is captured in Palmyra by Brown’s men.  He is about to be hung by them, when he grabs a gun and ducks into the barn where Brown-liberated black former slaves (Negroes, as they were called in 1940) are housed.  Stuart is being blasted from all sides and a lantern is shot, spilling flames all over the barn.  (We can see that Brown apparently doesn’t care what happens to the innocent blacks in his anger at Stuart.)  Stuart is rescued by the appearance of the rest of his detail, led by Custer, and Brown decides his work in Kansas is done, riding off to the east with his men.


Stuart (Errol Flynn) fights John Brown in a fiery barn; and a still of Custer (Reagan) and Stuart (Flynn) in uniform.

Back in Leavenworth, both Stuart and Custer press their suits with Kit, and Stuart is the winner.  An old Indian woman at the fort makes dark prophecies about the future of the six friends and divisions and battles among them.  Stuart and Custer are both promoted to captain and head off to an assignment in Maryland, where their new commanding officer is Col. Lee again.

In Maryland Rader comes to the army, disillusioned with Brown because he hasn’t been paid for his military expertise as Brown promised.  Rader warns of Brown’s plans to take over the weapons from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Because of the warning, Lee and his men are able to arrive in time to capture Brown in the act.  During a battle in which the army uses artillery to knock holes in the arsenal building, Brown kills Rader as a traitor.  (We knew he was going to die, with his conflicted loyalties).  John Brown is captured and hung, Stuart and Kit are married, and even Custer has a new girl friend.  The army friends ride off to an uncertain future in the Civil War, fighting on opposite sides.

Flynn and De Havilland make their usual charming couple.  De Havilland’s lively attractiveness reminds us that this kind of role usually passes unnoticed, but she does it unusually well.  Ronald Reagan, a perennial best friend to the lead in movies, is adequate if a bit light-weight as a fictional Custer.  The excellent character actor Moroni Olsen brings an appropriate gravitas to his role as Robert E. Lee.  Van Heflin isn’t bad in an early role as a villain who reforms, in the sort of role often played by Arthur Kennedy.  Heflin would graduate to more sympathetic parts eventually.  Ward Bond has a scarcely noticeable role as one of Brown’s men.


John Brown (Raymond Massey) gives his final speech about the coming apocalypse. He’s not wrong.


The famous John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Statehouse, 1938-1940.

The most memorable role in the film is Raymond Massey as John Brown, with his appearance and manner reminding us of the famous painting by John Steuart Curry from about the same time.  It was a natural role for Massey, and he would star as John Brown again in Seven Angry Men (1955), the main story of which is also the trial and hanging of the abolitionist.  Kansas slavery politics sound muddled here, although it is clear that John Brown is a bad guy, even if his heart is in the right place about the abolition of slavery.  He’s just too willing to use the sword on anybody who believes differently or crosses him.  Stuart is not all that convincing in his view that all the South needs is time and it will get rid of slavery on its own.  As in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was wildly inaccurate historically but enjoyable to watch, with Flynn playing Custer and De Havilland as his wife Libby in their last movie appearance together.  This is even more inaccurate, and slightly less watchable.  Of the six army friends in this film, only Stuart was actually in the West Point class of 1854, although it did include Robert E. Lee’s son George Washington Custis Lee (an eventual Confederate general) and Oliver O. Howard (ultimately a Union general).  Of the six supposed West Point friends depicted in the film, only Stuart did not survive the Civil War, although Custer famously met his own ignominious end at the Little Bighorn in 1876.


Filmed in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is a cut of only 93 minutes.  Music is by Max Steiner.


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The Scalphunters

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 12, 2015

The Scalphunters—Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Armando Silvestre (1968; Dir: Sydney Pollack)


This is one of two western comedies from the late 1960s-early 1970s that uses slavery as a critical element of its plot.  The other is Skin Game, and in both cases the slave in question is something of a con man who gets by in dicey circumstances by outsmarting everybody else.

Fur trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is making his way to sell his winter’s catch of pelts, when he encounters old acquaintance Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre).  Two Crows and his Kiowas make off with Bass’ furs, but not without making a trade of sorts.  They give him Joseph Winfield Lee (Ossie Davis), whom they have captured from the Comanches.  Lee turns out to be very well-educated, able to read, write, cipher and quote Latin; in fact, he is much better-educated than the Massachusetts-born Bass, who is illiterate.

As Lee explains matters to Bass, he has run off from Louisiana, hoping to reach Mexico, where there is no slavery.  He had fallen in with Comanches and keeps arguing that he is a Comanche, but had the misfortune to be captured by Kiowas, who have now traded him to Bass.  Bass has no use for a slave but figures he can recoup something by selling Lee in St. Louis.  Bass may not have much book learning, but he’s a masterful fighter and tactician, and he can live off the arid lands of the west.  Bass and Lee banter back and forth, while they follow the Kiowas.  Bass knows there’s a cask of whiskey in with his furs and figures to take back the furs as soon as the Indians incapacitate themselves with the whiskey.


Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) and Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) look to recover Bass’ furs.

Joe Bass:  “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?”
Joseph Lee:  “No, sir, but I’d like to see it done.”

It almost works, but just as Bass and Lee are about to make their move, the Kiowas are slaughtered by a group of scurrilous scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas).  In addition to killing the Indians for the $25 bounties their scalps will bring, they make off with Bass’ furs.  Only Two Crows escapes.  Bass and Lee follow the scalphunters.  As they spy on them, trying to figure out how to get the furs, Lee falls down a steep escarpment and is captured by the scalphunters.

Jim Howie plans to sell Lee in Galveston on their way to Mexico.  Lee ingratiates himself with Howie’s woman Kate, hoping to make himself indispensable enough that they’ll take him to Mexico.  Bass ambushes the scalphunters and orders them to leave the mule with the furs behind while they move on; he kills the two scalphunters Howie orders to flank him.  But the mule runs off and is taken by the scalphunters again.  Bass orchestrates a landslide that takes out several of the scalphunters, but they manage to hang onto the furs.


Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) thinks he finally has Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) where he wants him.

When the scalphunters are about to make a stop, Bass puts loco weed in the water their horses will drink.  He ridicules Lee for not being able or willing to fight, and Howie has set a trap for Bass.  As the Bass and Lee argue and brawl, Howie springs out of hiding with a gun.  Lee grapples with him and in the struggle it goes off; Lee is the survivor.  As Bass and Lee continue their interminable fight, Two Crows shows up and takes over the furs and Kate, killing the few remaining scalphunters. As Bass and Lee ride off on Bass’s horse, Lee points out that the scalphunter wagon has Howie’s drinking whiskey, and that by nightfall the Kiowas should be quite drunk.

Director Sydney Pollack only made two westerns.  This was the first; the second (and better) one was Jeremiah Johnson in 1972, with Robert Redford.  Lancaster and Ossie Davis are quite good.  The movie depends on their relationship, and it works well.  Telly Savalas had a modest career as a heavy in movies (McKenna’s Gold, for example) before moving on to become a cop as television’s Kojack.  Shelley Winters was excellent casting as as Howie’s blowzy companion, given to singing Mormon hymns on Sunday mornings.  One anachronism sticks out:  in the pre-Civil War period of this movie, Joe Bass sports a repeating rifle, which would not then have been available.  The fights become a little tiresome.


Shot in color on location in Durango, Mexico.  At 102 minutes, it seems a slight film that doesn’t stick in the memory long.  Music is by prolific movie composer Elmer Bernstein.  The unusually literate script is by William Norton.  For another western featuring slavery, see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which has a few comic moments but is not generally a comedy.  To see Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, check out The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

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Skin Game

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2014

Skin Game—James Garner, Louis Gossett, Jr., Susan Clark, Ed Asner, Brenda Sykes, Andrew Duggan (1971; Dir: Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas [uncredited])


This was the third and last of the three good western comedies starring James Garner in his amiable con-man persona.  Some might also consider Sunset and Maverick from late in Garner’s career to belong in the same category, but this is Garner in his prime.  Here he is ably joined by Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

Not long before the Civil War, Quincy Drew (Garner) and his friend and partner Jason Rourke (Gossett) are running a con in Missouri.  Jason is a free black man from New Jersey; the two met in a Pennsylvania jail and started working together.  The two of them ride into a town in a border state, with Quincy pretending to be an impoverished slave owner reduced to selling his favorite slave.  He conducts an impromptu auction, usually in a bar, and rides out of town with the proceeds.  Jason later escapes at an opportune moment and rejoins Quincy, to repeat the con in another town.


Selling Jason (Lou Gossett) again.

They find themselves in Kansas, which is voting on whether to adopt slavery amid high political feelings on both sides.  Quincy puts Jason in a larger slave auction, but things don’t run smoothly this time.  Jason becomes enamored of Naomi (Brenda Sykes), another young slave up for sale.  Quincy is attracted to Ginger (Susan Clark), with whom he strikes up a liaison.  Matters are further complicated when fiery abolitionist John Brown (played by Royal Dano) shows up and violently liberates the slaves, and Quincy finds that Ginger has liberated him from his stash of money.

Jason and Quincy manage to find each other again, but matters still do not run smoothly.  Trying the con just one last time, Quincy’s con is exposed by Plunkett (Ed Asner), a nasty slave trader who has already bought Jason once.  Plunkett takes Jason south and sells him down the river, and Quincy is tossed in jail.  To Quincy’s surprise, Ginger manages to spring him from jail and volunteers to help him rescue Jason.


Quincy (James Garner) is taken with (and by) Ginger (Susan Clark).

They pose as medical missionaries seeking a slave with leprosy, as they look for wherever Jason may have been sold.  They find him at the Calloway plantation in Texas, with Naomi and several African recent arrivals who don’t speak English but have a way with horses.  The Africans have adopted Jason as their leader, and he refuses to leave without them.  Quincy is exposed while plotting their getaway, and is given a taste of the whip.  But the group manages to escape and head for Mexico.  It looks like Quincy and Ginger will stick together, although they still have issues about who’s in control and who holds the money.

As a western comedy, this is fairly successful.  It seems unlikely that a comedy with slavery as one of its central elements would be made today.  Among filmmakers, the current sensibility is not to see slavery as an element of history, but to portray it as so unrelievedly evil and patently wrong that no comedy can exist in its presence.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were two good western comedies involving slavery: this, and 1968’s The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.  Django Unchained (2012) also comes to mind as a recent western involving slavery with some comedic elements, but it is not primarily a comedy and Quentin Tarantino is unusually strong-minded in going his own way as a director.  The slavery element will rub some viewers the wrong way, but this movie does not condone slavery in any way.  If anything, it expresses some slightly anachronistic but perhaps accurate views of how slavery affected people, as Quincy is educated in how it feels.  It’s worth watching but seldom seen.


James Garner is the principal reason to watch this, but Lou Gossett balances him nicely in a strong performance.  The friendship between them is persuasive.  To see more comedic Garner from the same period, look for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, perhaps his very best movie and role of this kind) and its sequel of sorts, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, with mostly the same team but not as successfully done).  Susan Clark is surprisingly good as the amoral pickpocket-con woman Ginger, a good match for Garner’s Quincy.  To see her in another western, check her out as Burt Lancaster’s reluctant hunting companion in Valdez Is Coming, also from 1971.  Ed Asner as Plunkett also makes an excellent despicable slave trader and villain.  As another villain, see him as greedy range boss Bart Jason in El Dorado (1966), with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.


A taste of the lash for Quincy when he is discovered trying to free slaves.

In color, at 102 minutes.  As with Django Unchained, there is heavy use of the “N-word,” which is probably historically accurate.  Not to be confused with the seldom-seen Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1931, The Skin Game.  The characters from the movie later appeared in a made-for-television sequel Sidekicks (1974) directed by Burt Kennedy, with Lou Gossett reprising his role as Jason Rourke (or O’Rourke) and Larry Hagman playing the part of Quincy (or Quince) Drew.  This time the two con artists after the Civil War hatch a scheme to collect a $15,000 bounty offered for the capture of an outlaw.  For another comedy from the same period with slavery as one of its key points, see The Scalphunters from 1968.

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Django Unchained

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2013

Django Unchained—Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson and many others (2012; Dir:  Quentin Tarantino)


Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious homage to spaghetti westerns was nominated as part of the large field for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013; it won for Best Original Screenplay and Christoph Waltz won (again) as Best Supporting Actor.  It’s a long (at 164 minutes) and sometimes dizzying exercise in filmmaking.  Tarantino is overt about finding inspiration in 1966’s Django made by Sergio Corbucci—the theme from that movie plays over this one’s opening credits, and original Django star Franco Nero (among many others) has a cameo.  But the production values are much higher, and the traditional forms of Tarantino self-indulgence are on display.  He self-consciously dances the lines between cliché and homage and between political correctness and outrageous non-correctness in ways no one else does.  He plays with anachronism in language, attitudes and other elements in a very calculated way, and that’s part of the game here.

Set in 1858, the film starts in Texas, where Django (Jamie Foxx) is chained with other slaves purchased at the Greenville, Mississippi, slave markets.  The group is approached by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dapper and articulate dentist of German origin.  When the slavers refuse to sell Django and threaten him, Schultz shoots them both and reveals that he is also a bounty hunter with anti-slavery feelings.  He proceeds to treat Django well and even trains him in the skills of bounty hunting while he uses Django’s knowledge of three particular miscreants to hunt them down in Mississippi.  [There is a very funny sequence with a pre-KKK group in hoods.]  Django shows immediate aptitude for the profession and joins Dr. Schultz as a partner, with the understanding that they will attempt to find and recover Django’s wife from wherever she has been sold.

Django Unchained movie still Schultz and Django

[Spoilers] After a winter spent hunting in the mountains (around Jackson Hole, to judge from the scenery), they head for Mississippi, where they discover that Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington, in an apparent reference to 1970s blaxploitation films like Shaft) has been sold to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio).  They come up with an elaborate plan to pose as buyers of Mandingo fighting slaves and purchase Broomhilda on the side.  They are discovered and exposed by Candie’s virulent head of house slaves, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  As matters fall apart and give way to an extensive shoot-out, ultimately Candie and Dr. Schultz (and many others) are killed, and Django is taken prisoner and sold to a mining operator strangely run by Australians. 

DjangoDiCaprioJackson Candie and Stephen

He makes both his escape and a vengeful return to Candieland (Candyland?), armed conventionally and with dynamite from the miners.  He wins and rides away with Broomhilda.

Although the language, clothes and weapons are often anachronistic, the screenplay’s use of language is also mostly engaging, especially when spoken by Dr. Schultz and occasionally by villain DiCaprio.  The best performance is by Vienna-born Waltz, and the part was written with him in mind.  Reportedly Waltz only agreed to take the part on the understanding that the character of Dr. Schultz would have no negative characteristics—other than, say, his profession of killing people.  DiCaprio is excellent as a snaky slave owner and the primary villain, with very strong support from Samuel L. Jackson as head of the Candie house negroes with a strong stake in preserving the status quo.

DjangoNero Nero in one of the many cameos.

The film is absolutely stuffed with name actors in small parts:  Bruce Dern (recalling perhaps his role as the psychotic killer of John Wayne 40 years earlier in The Cowboys), Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Russ Tamblyn and his daughter Amber, Franco Nero (the original 1966 Django), Michael Parks, Dennis Christopher, James Remar (in two roles), Walton Goggins (particularly effective), James Russo (in a briefer and nastier version of his role in Broken Trail), Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Robert Carradine, makeup and effects wizard Tom Savini, and, of course, director Tarantino himself.  And the list of actors invited to participate who couldn’t (Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, to name just two former Wyatt Earps) is even more astounding.  King’s and Django’s horses are named Fritz and Tony—the names of the horses of silent western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

The name “Django” is said to be a Romany (Gypsy) term meaning “I awake.”  It is well-known among musicians and jazz enthusiasts for having been adopted by Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt (1910-1953), the famous Romany-Belgian-French jazz guitarist known professionally as Django Reinhardt.  It was also extensively used in a string of spaghetti westerns, the first (and best) of which starred Franco Nero.


Tarantino and the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who got his initial fame from his work on Sergio Leone’s 1960s westerns) have worked together on three previous movies, but with this one Morricone was finding Tarantino’s approach to film music more difficult.  After working on this film, Morricone reportedly said he would probably never again collaborate with Tarantino, since he didn’t like the way the writer/director “places music in his films without coherence,” “never giving enough time.”  Even Jim Croce shows up on the sound track, and it has perhaps the most tense version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on film.

The gunfights are of the sort often seen in spaghetti westerns, in which Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef could take on any number of armed opponents, kill them all and emerge unscathed.  That is, they are not very realistic.  But this is far from the worst violence Tarantino has shown in his films to date.

djangoJackson Jackson does malevolence well.

The film is set almost all in the south, but it is obviously a western.  Rated R for graphic violence (people are shot to pieces, with plumes of blood erupting from their bodies; slaves are whipped, branded, tortured and torn to pieces by dogs), brief nudity and liberal use of the n-word, the last of which is presumably historically accurate.  Otherwise, he doesn’t worry much about historical accuracy.  The names are colorful and occasionally outrageous (Calvin Candie, Billy Crash, Leonide Moguy [apparently an homage to 1930s-40s French director Leonide Moguy], Mr. Stonecipher, Butch Pooch, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Broomhilda von Schaft, and so on). 

Director Tarantino is clearly dazzled by genre film-making and its history.  This results in an unnecessary proliferation of characters, many references to other movies and movie-makers, multiple distractions from telling the movie’s story and ultimately a long movie.  It’s fun, though, and quite watchable.  In fact, you’re unlikely to catch all that’s going on here with just one viewing.

Written by director Tarantino, this was the first western to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, nearly 45 years earlier, and the first to win an Oscar for acting since Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, twenty years earlier. This film, along with the Coen brothers’ True Grit, repeated the pattern from the early 1990s where two westerns (Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven) were nominated for Best Picture within two years of each other.  In the early 1990s they both won, but not so in the 2010s.

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