"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Santa Fe Trail: The Film that Skewed John Brown for the 20th Century

As historians, we wish that "history" would be defined by scholarly writings in the popular mind. This is usually not the case. For the masses of people, fictional stories and cinema are far more important than scholarly research and writing. While scholarship has a great impact on scholars, most people are primarily interested in the latest fiction, and even when history is involved, they are more interested in a fictional take on the historical. As John Brown the abolitionist is concerned, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (1998), a "work of imagination" about Brown, had far more readers and far more interest from the media than any published biography of Brown to date, even the prominently reviewed biography of my associate, David Reynolds. While Banks is a masterful writer, it is interesting that many if not most people seem intent on informing themselves about Brown according to the novelist, not the historian. In "John Brown's Holy War," the tragically distorted PBS documentary about Brown that was first broadcast in 2000, it is interesting that both Banks and Bruce Olds, who shamefully pimped and slurred Brown in his 1995 novel, were included as "talking heads."

In keeping with this unfortunate dynamic, we should not forget the impact that the 1940 film, Santa Fe Trail, made upon the public mind with regard to John Brown the abolitionist. With an all-star cast (including Ronald Reagan, the best friend of Bonzo the monkey), Santa Fe Trail provided the U.S. public its first cinematic portrayal of Brown, based upon a screenplay by Robert Buckner, who was sympathetic to the slave South in his outlook. As Malcolm X said in retrospect--undoubtedly speaking of this film--Santa Fe Trail made Brown look like a "nut." Although Raymond Massey, starring as Brown, made a valiant effort in his portrayal (he portrayed Brown again in another film in the 1950s that was far more sympathetic, but far less paradigmatic), the substance of the story was malignant. Telling the story of Brown's public career through the eyes of Westpoint heros--later Confederate traitors to the Union and warriors in defense of black enslavement--Santa Fe Trail makes Brown look like a dangerous and delusional fanatic, disdained and feared even by his own son. Although there is a sympathetic moment on the gallows for Brown, the movie reeks with white racist pathology and does more than the normal abuse of historical fact that we expect in cinematic attempts at history-telling.

Santa Fe Trail is a cinematic monstrosity that glorifies the ethical and moral "bad guys" of history and demonizes the man who represented one of the few militant exceptions to white supremacy in the U.S. As a matter of record, one of Brown's descendants at the time tried to sue the production company for slandering and misrepresenting her famous forebear, but a federal judge dismissed her case (of course, "freedom of speech" and "artistic freedom" are the gods of the west; they are more important than truth or piety). Santa Fe Trail went on to misinform two generations about John Brown and has done so with such unfortunate success that it will probably take another movie of equal popularity to strangle its roots in the psychic soil of the "American mind"--particularly among the masses of whites who continue to believe that slavery was not as bad as we make it out to have been, and who show a greater lamentation over the deaths of five immoral and dangerous whites in Kansas at Brown's hand than they do the myriad crimes committed against blacks and other people of color at the hands of their great white heroes like slaveholding and Indian-killing Andrew Jackson, or hypocritical and self-conflicted Negrophobes like Thomas Jefferson. That these fools and rogues are on "our" money is a fair testimony to the dynamics behind the demonization of Brown.

Whatever the case, you can watch Santa Fe Trail for yourself on line. It is now featured on the Classic Radio and Movies Network, where you can view it or even download it. Go to:

Remember: Santa Fe Trail is not history. It is "a work of imagination"--the imagination of white supremacy.--LD

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