23 July 2013 | MartinHafer
This one was a real surprise....
In 1940, Raymond Massey played John Brown in "Santa Fe Trail". In this very florid and cartoonish portrayal, Massey played Brown with a gusto that is interesting to watch but probably not at all realistic with his rolling eyes and insane antics. Now, a decade and a half later, Massey gets another chance to play Brown--and this time, the portrait is MUCH more even-handed and realistic. You can probably guess which of the two films I preferred!
The film begins in Kansas and Brown seems like a decent and reasonable guy. Sure, he's gung ho about abolishing slavery, but he's no hot-head. However, after pro-slavery vigilantes attack him and his family, Brown is radicalized. Now, he's at war with the slavers--and kills several in cold blood. In other words, you see Brown's progression which ultimately led to his ill-conceived attack on the US armory at Harper's Ferry.
Throughout the film, the Brown saga is often shown from the standpoint of one of Brown's sons (played by Jeffery Hunter). It's not a bad plot device and also helps because it provides a counter-point to Brown's eventual antics. Not a brilliant film but a film far, far better and more fair than the sort of ultra-pro Confederacy films that prevailed from the time of "Birth of a Nation" through the 1950s. Relatively fair, realistic and ahead of its time--and a MUCH better performance by Massey as a man, not just some silly lunatic.