Broken Trail (review)

Not Your Daddy’s Western

When I tell you that I was thoroughly riveted by Broken Trail, you need some context in which to understand this. This is a made-for-cable movie, and though once in a rare while the publicity machine for such a flick will host a press preview on a big screen, much more typically, getting the movie in front of critics involves sending out a DVD. And that was the case with Broken Trail. (The two-part, four-hour miniseries airs starting tonight at 8pm Eastern on AMC, rerunning tomorrow at 6pm before the debut of Part II at 8pm; it reruns in its entirety several times in July and, I would imagine, in perpetuity until; the end of the universe; check for details.)

Unfair or not, that means that, as with any entertainment option that comes streaming into your living room and so has to fight for one’s attention with myriad potential distractions — from ringing phones to the bings of incoming emails to the cries for sustenance from starving pets/children/spouses, and so on — it frequently cannot command one’s entire attention. And if, as may also often be the case, the, ahem, totally hypothetical critic is half turned off by the prospect of yet another conventional, obvious, phoned-in made-for-cable movie, it may — may, I say — be easy to tell oneself something like, Well, I can at least crash through that horrendous pile of e-mails or fold the laundry or water the plants or get to some sundry chore while the movie plays in the background.
What housekeeping chore might I have gotten done while Broken Trail played? Not a single damn one. Because from the affecting opening moments of Part I to the just-a-wee-bit sentimental final curtain of Part II, I was hooked. Completely. Utterly. And totally unexpectedly. Westerns, the critic thinks: Bah. We’ve seen them all before. But not like this. This complete reinvigoration of the genre — from legendary Western filmmaker Walter Hill (whose more recent work has been unWestern stuff like Undisputed and Supernova), first-time screenwriter Alan Geoffrion, and star/producer and Western-movie icon Robert Duvall — strips away the clichés, curtails the nonsense, boils itself down to the bare rock of human drives for honor and honesty, cruelty and visciousness, survival and redemption. This is a story about people on a wild and all but lawless frontier pushed to discover the best in themselves… or to learn the hard truth that they are not cut out for this life.

And I do mean “people,” not “Anglo-esque white guys who speak only English.” This is the rare Western that acknowledges that the American West in 1890s, when Broken Trail takes place, was not populated merely with white men, the occasional whore with a heart of gold, and the rare Indian who managed to escape the North American holocaust. Part I opens — and this is how I got hooked — with five young Chinese women, one of them really still a girl, in San Francisco being sold into prostitution slavery by one of their own, a seemingly kindly Chinese grandma type. The heartless brutality of this scene, as the women are treated like livestock, reduced to their physical attributes and the untouched (or not) condition of their most private places, is but the first indication that this is not your Daddy’s Western. On the one hand, it’s not easy to watch, but on the other, it’s so removed from anything you might have expected that you can’t look away.

And then we meet rancher Print Ritter (Duvall: Kicking & Screaming, Secondhand Lions) and his nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church: Over the Hedge, Sideways), who are embarking on an uneasy partnership as dealers in horseflesh. As they drive their new herd of 500 horses west to Wyoming, they cross paths with the Chinese women in the keep of the creepy Billy Fender (James Russo: Open Range, The Ninth Gate), who’s transporting them to some godforsaken mining town where they’ll be the toys of the horny miners, the very short-term employee of whorehouse mistress Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer: Runaway Jury, The Perfect Storm), who does not have a heart of gold.

Already, by this point, you’ve learned not to expect the expected from Broken Trail, but it’s only 45 minutes into a four-hour tale, and you can’t help but anticipate where things are gonna take us. And of course, you’ll be wrong, and it’s a delight to find oneself continually surprised — by the wonderful, unfussy minimalism of Church’s performance, when he’s delivered such equally wonderful caricatures in so many other shows and movies; by Duvall’s sweet gruffness; by the diverse and realistic portrayal of the Chinese women, from the smart and resolute Ghee Moon (Jadyn Wong) to the shy and kind Sun Foy (Gwendoline Yeo) to the troubled and edgy Ye Fung (Olivia Cheng); by, ironically, the casual visciousness of this movie, which does not prepare you for its outbursts violence and inhumanity.

Broken Trail is not a simple entertainment that wants to placate its audience with fantasies of the West or lies about the “freedom” and “independence” of corny, cartoonish cowboys. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t stupendously satisfying — it simply finds its pleasure in a new and more rewarding idea of the West, one about community and respect and the coming together of diverse people instead of the driving apart of them.

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Kathy A
Kathy A
Mon, Jun 26, 2006 10:49am

If you like this miniseries’ look at the Chinese experience in the Old West, I can definitely recommend a movie called “A Thousand Pieces of Gold,” starring Rosalind Chao (from Star Trek: Next Generation and Deep Space Nine).

Mon, Jun 26, 2006 12:51pm

Thanks for the great review. I only saw last night, and loved it. I read the novel, also by Alan Geoffrion, and was totally blown away by how much this was not like a typical western, and made room for so many voices, in a compact, beautiful manner. I look forward to seeing night 2!

Ronald Bauer
Ronald Bauer
Tue, Jun 27, 2006 11:03am

What a wonderful movie series. My wife and I (in our seventies) could not read the captions at the end and we therefore do not know how the characters finally ended up. After watching for hours the captions could have been much better. If someone could send us a synopis of what happened to them, in the end, at the above we would greatly appreciate it.

Thank You

Darrel Blaine Ford
Tue, Jun 27, 2006 11:34am

For this 76 year old dude, your review described my expreience perfectly. Delicious. For the four hours I had the feeling I had dined with Kings, a very rare experience on cable or any other kind of TV, these days. I want more. Regards, Darrel Blaine Ford/Walt

Tue, Jun 27, 2006 1:16pm

I loved the entire thing!! I don’t know who I loved more, Duvall or Church!! Every character was a delight to watch. Very refreshing. I LOVE a good western, and was pleasantly surprised!!

Tue, Jun 27, 2006 1:21pm

To Ronald Bauer (above post),

Nola died and was buried at the river where Prent also was laid to rest. Heck’s parents had his body interred and reburied him at their home elsewhere. The girls graduated from college and went to China to practice healthcare and somehow got lost in the chaos of a war, I think. Tom and the other girl married and their grandchildren still ranch their in Wyoming to this day.

I loved it!!!

Tue, Jun 27, 2006 4:27pm

We thought this was a terrific production and we are certainly blessed to have an actor like Duvall, aren’t we? We had a bit of a problem reading the epilogues, as someone else mentioned, but how marvelous that the people really existed and that some of their descendants are still around.

Church has been one of my favorites ever since he appeared in “Sideways.” It was a joy to see him again.

John Casper
John Casper
Tue, Jun 27, 2006 8:00pm

Terrific review, thanks.

Wed, Jun 28, 2006 1:40pm

Robert Duvall’s character mumbled his line while revealing his philosophy about females. This is an embarassing question: I didn’t catch the comment Print Ritter made about “between a woman’s legs”. Does anyone remember what he said? Thank you.

Wed, Jun 28, 2006 9:16pm

Does anyone remember the short speech Print Ritter made at funerals? I would like to have the quote. Especially the part about “between the two eternities”…

Fri, Jul 07, 2006 1:12am

Church was good, Scacchi was excellent, Mulkey was chilling, but it was Duvall who kept me going on this one. I have to say it was a bit slow in the middle, even for a Western history buff. But when Ritter’s character started to really take shape, I was hooked.

This was my first visit to your site but not the last. I knew that as soon as I saw Buckaroo Banzai at the top of your Top 100.

Alice C. Bateman
Sun, Jul 09, 2006 9:43pm

What a great review – thank you very much! I’m a Canadian, Broken Trail was filmed around where I live in Calgary, Alberta, and I played a Saloon Girl in the western town.

I haven’t been able to see Broken Trail yet, it hasn’t been carried by a Canadian network that I’m aware of, and I’m very interested in seeing it after four very long days on the set. It’s a little frustrating to have been on the inside of the production, and not being able to see it! That’s why I appreciate this review so very much, you told me a great deal.

Fri, Jul 14, 2006 6:00pm

I remember part of it.. maybe someone else can remember the rest:
From sweet grass to the packing house
From birth to death…

The rest was something about all being travelers through life, but I can’t quite remember how it goes.