Though it doesn't particularly break any new ground and is rather predictable, the two-part, three-hour Western miniseries Broken Trail (2006) has many other things in its favor: strong characterizations, some very fine acting all around, picturesque locations, period authenticity and, best of all, real heart - not what you'd expect from a show directed by Walter (AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator) Hill. Nowadays decent Westerns are as few and far between as homesteads in 1890s Idaho, and while this essentially Robert Duvall-driven vehicle isn't as memorable as Lonesome Dove or the underrated Open Range, it meanders pleasingly along to a very satisfying conclusion with flashes of real Western poetry.
Sony's Blu-ray disc is a fine example of how certain made-for-TV movies can benefit from the format. Filmed in Alberta, Canada, with some perceptible CGI tweaking of skies and landscapes, it's a beauty of a disc with an almost travelogue quality, the visual style neatly contrasting the almost monochrome man-made communities with vividly-colored unspoiled vistas.
When the estranged mother of Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways) dies and leaves her entire estate to Tom's uncle, Prentice Ritter (Duvall), the elder cowboy decides to settle old accounts by making Tom a partner in a horse drive across the northwestern frontier, more or less following the Oregon Trail in reverse.
Along the way, Tom and Ritter reluctantly become the guardians of five young Chinese women - none of whom speak any English - sold into sexual slavery but rescued by the pair. Embittered saloon keeper/bordello owner Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer) hires sadistic ex-con Ed "Big Ears" Bywaters (Chris Mulkey) to track down the girls, her "property," and bring them back. In the meantime, Tom and Ritter are gradually joined by Gilpin (Scott Cooper), a fiddle-playing dropout from a titled East Coast family; and Nola Johns (Greta Scacchi), an over-the-hill prostitute in freefall after years of abuse.
At its center Broken Trail is basically a character study of an old, 70-something cowboy, gradually revealed in a series of little vignettes that methodically unfold and play off other largely peripheral characters. It's episodic and leisurely (it seems longer than it is) but never dull.
Duvall is a great actor though sometimes his actorly tics are overindulged. I recall his miscalculated, unintentionally funny death scene in Dennis Hopper's LA Cops drama Colors (1988), which played like bad improvisation. In Broken Trail Duvall mumbles and mutters to himself a lot, at times teetering toward a non-comical, Gabby Hayes-like characterization.
It might have been disastrous, but Duvall ultimately makes Ritter believable as a solitary man who's lived nearly his entire life on the open range, alone. Like some of Kurosawa's best films, there's a master-pupil, surrogate father-son relationship at play, with Ritter the experienced old hand passing along some of his wisdom to Tom, who's got plenty of years under his belt already but can still learn a thing or three from Ritter. At the same time, and in some of the film's best scenes, Ritter surprises himself with the rush of adrenaline he feels after shooting someone, or taken aback by the emotion that overcomes him at times.
Alan Geoffrion's teleplay has plenty of Western verisimilitude; the horse driving scenes play authentic and the jargon Ritter and Tom use among themselves seems very real and natural. Some of the vignettes highlight this, as well as Ritter's obvious experience and trail savvy. One great scene has Ritter shooting a man (Shaun Johnson) in cold blood, as Tom and the Chinese girls look on in confused horror. Ritter later explains that he recognized the man as Small Pox Bob, a Typhoid Mary of the Old West, paid to pass along Small Pox to various Indian tribes, and that Ritter shot him rather than chance his coming into contact with the women.
Duvall's especially good with the five Asian actresses and Scacchi in particular. There's a marvelous scene where Ritter and Nola quietly, subtly flirt with one another under the nighttime sky, their feet dangling in a placid stream.
Duvall reportedly almost walked off the film when Geoffrion's script was changed at the last minute to include more violent gunfighting and the like; Duvall stayed home until the original screenplay was reinstated. One suspects the new script may have been Hill's work; as a writer-director and producer, Hill's scripts tend toward the gratuitously violent, and though he's done a couple of good pictures over the years - I'm particularly fond of his first, Hard Times - he's also had a hand in many more bad ones than good, and almost none have the fitful poetry of Broken Trail at its best.
The picture is well-cast. Thomas Haden Church, hysterically funny in Sideways, turns out to be an excellent actor for the genre, his classically craggy, ruddy features genuinely looking like something out of the late-19th century. Scacchi, made up to look considerably older than her 46 years, is entirely believable, and the five Asian actresses are quite good also. Among the many awards Broken Trail picked up after its airing was an Emmy for its casting, which it most definitely earned.
Video & Audio
Broken Trail was apparently shot in 35mm, on Kodak film stock, using Panavision cameras and lenses. The 1.78:1 presentation, in full 1080p high definition (and region-encoded A, B, and C), is excellent, up to contemporary standards. The image is clean with a pleasing film look, and the color pallet is impressive. Though in standard-def few would probably notice, in high-def a charge up and over a steep mountainside and some of the skylines have some perceptible CGI tweaking. The composites of the actors and horses with the treacherous mountainside are cleverly done, but easy to catch if you're watching closely.
The audio is likewise strong, available in both English and French-dubbed Dolby TrueHD 5.1, as well as Portuguese and Spanish 5.1. The score by David Mansfield and Van Dyke Parks benefits and the mixing of the ambient sounds of the Old West is effective. Optional subtitles are available in Chinese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese on both the feature and special features, and in Arabic, Indonesian Bahasa, and English SDH on the movie alone.
Outside of high-def trailers for 21, Vantage Point, and a Blu-ray release promo for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the only supplement is the immodestly-titled Broken Trail: The Making of a Legendary Western. Running 23 minutes it's generally quite well done, featuring interviews with most of the principal cast and creative team, and it goes into some interesting details about the wardrobe, the animal wrangling, the development of the script, etc. Disappointingly, though filmed 1.78:1 widescreen, the image has been shrunk to 4:3 letterboxed size for no good reason, and is presented in standard definition.
I sat through most of Broken Trail thinking it was just okay, at times above average but nothing to get too excited about, but by the last third of the picture I was really taken with its characters, their hardships and pleasures, and ultimately was sorry to see it end. Written with both affection for the genre and with much sensitivity, featuring some terrific performances and generally well-made all around, Broken Trail is Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.