Sunday, June 19, 2011

Santa Fe

How difficult was it to build the network of railroads across the Western part of the United States? Santa Fe depicts the construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad from its beginning in Missouri to its completion in New Mexico. The movie is probably based on fact but the plot makes it clear that this is a Hollywood version of history.

The opening narration sets the scene by describing the hard times faced by soldiers of both North and South after the Civil War. Then Santa Fe shifts its focus and four men on horses are shown entering a town. They go into a saloon, which looks suspiciously like most other saloons in Westerns, and start verbally sparring with some other customers at the bar, who are a mix of Yankee soldiers and civilians. The newcomers, we soon discover, are Southerners from Virginia who lost their plantation in the war and shortly thereafter a gunfight breaks out and the Southerners flee.

Resembling the scene in The Posse that Wouldn’t Quit, the four men who are being chased by a group of townspeople halt at the top of a ridge. Spying alternative transportation in the form of a train approaching down below, they dismount and jump onto a flatbed railroad car and make their escape.

The rest of Santa Fe deals with how the four men, who turn out to be brothers, interact with the railroad. The oldest brother, Britt Canfield, who was a captain in the Confederate Army and is played by Randolph Scott, joins the company building the railroad. He starts off by laying track—though the movie never says how much the railroad is paying for that work, unlike The Day the Amnesty Came Through—and he soon becomes an essential and trusted employee. The other brothers decline the opportunity and make different choices.

Scott plays his typical Western man: strong, taciturn, a take-charge kind of guy, a loner, a man who demonstrates loyalty even though it creates moral dilemmas for him. Santa Fe also includes typical movie Western scenes: There is a section in the middle of the film involving Indians and the movie seems to make fun of them when they encounter the railroad for the first time; there is also a saloon fight that resembles countless other saloon fights; and there is a woman who at first resents Scott’s character but is eventually won over by his charm.

There are also some slapstick moments involving the train engineer and his fireman, which seem somewhat out of place. The train is held up but unlike Alias Smith and Jones, people are shot and die in Santa Fe. This leads to complications for Scott’s Canfield, as it seems his brothers are involved, and a major part of the movie deals with the effects of the robbery.

Another subplot is about the competition between the railroad company Canfield works for and the Denver Rio Grande Railroad, whose cars were seen in a number of episodes of Alias Smith and Jones (on the TV show, however, the train is called the Denver & Rio Grande). The westward progress of the railroad is indicated by showing names of the towns it passes through superimposed on shots of train track at ground level, as if a train is driving over it, which is an interesting choice of camera angle.

Produced in 1951 and running only 87 minutes, Santa Fe is a pleasant if unremarkable diversion for an afternoon or evening.

Short biography of Cyrus K. Holliday, founder of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad:

History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad: