Broken Trail

| June 17, 2006

AMC’s first original movie pays homage to the Western, that American icon of film which sets us apart from every other nation and culture as much as the Samurai film or the Knights of old. Starring and executive produced by Robert Duvall, and directed by Walter Hill, AMC has crafted a top-notch effort; the quality in the production extends both in front of and behind the cameras. The film is at once reminiscent of the best Western films of recent years, including Open Range, True Grit and The Unforgiven.
Broken Trail is the story of two men–an uncle and his nephew–who set out to make a quick and earnest buck by herding 500 head of horses to a wealthy rancher in Wyoming. The story begins with Duvall delivering some bad news to his wayfaring nephew–his mother has died. What’s more, she left the ranch and all her worldly possessions, including whatever money she had in the bank, to her brother, Print Ridder (Duvall). The nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church), had a very standoffish relationship with his mother, but never expected to be cut out of the will entirely. Duvall has a suggestion; run a herd of horses up to Wyoming, in answer to an ad a wealthy British rancher has placed. Duvall’s arguments are convincing enough and before you know it they’ve rounded up a herd and are on their way. Before long, it’s apparent the quiet Harte needs a little break from his colorful, storytelling uncle. When he stops in at the first town for supplies, he recruits young Irishman Heck Gilpin (Scott Cooper, Gods and Generals), to help with the herd and be a buffer against the cantankerous old fellow. As it turns out, they get along just fine.
But this act is a portent to more strange occurrences and meetings along the trail. Before long, they happen into drummer and conman Captain Billy Fender (James Russo, Open Range, Donnie Brasco) and his cargo of Chinese slaves. When Cap’n Billy takes off with their funds, one of the girls and some of their livestock, it is Harte who single-handedly hunts him down and stretches his neck from the nearest tree.
This is where the film really gets interesting. The ladies have been sold into slavery back in their homeland China, and now have been brought to the U.S. where they were again bought and are being shipped to Wyoming to be sold nightly as prostitutes to the Chinamen working on the railroad. I find this element of the story fascinating, and the clash of cultures truly elevates this film far above most westerns. Gwendolyne Yeo (Desperate Housewives) is excellent as the erstwhile leader of the women.
Their act of heroism brings another problem for our boys, as the addition of a wagonload of ladies in a foreign world adds weight and burden to their journey. And there are many more encounters and conflicts to come, including a very nasty villain in the form of Chris Mulkey.
In the sure hands of veteran director/producer/writer Walter Hill (Deadwood, Last Man Standing, The Getaway, Aliens), Broken Trail fills up the screen with majesty and mayhem, beauty and tension. There are a number of surprises in the story, helping to hold our attention right up to the very end. And Thomas Haden-Church, known best for his comic talents (Sideways, TV’s Wings), turns in a very believable performance as the man of strength and ability in this true Western. There is even a bit of romance for the crusty Ridder, presented in the exotic form of Greta Scacchi (The Player, Presumed Innocent). And how that one turns out is also something of a surprise.
Overall, Broken Trail is a great addition to the pantheon of the American Western, and an excellent way to spend a few hours. If you enjoy a film with some good, old-fashioned values that entertains and enthralls, then I heartily recommend Broken Trail.

About the Author:

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly. He is an independent filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, and film teacher, currently living in Chicago.

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