Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Thirty Five: Broken Arrow & Broken Trail
Delmer Daves continues to prove himself one of the masters of the Western genre, worthy of being in the discussion alongside Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Boetticher. This film shows his ability to direct great performances, action, suspense, and romance with as much effectiveness as he did in 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal but with a completely different narrative.
I also think this might be one of Jimmy Stewart’s most underrated performances. I never hear talk about his portrayal of Jeffords in discussions of the actor’s work but this ranks among the best he gave for Hitchcock, Mann, and Capra. There are some truly amazing moments that owe much to Stewart, from his explosive anger to the final tragic minutes.
The film is probably historically inaccurate in more ways than it is not. It also requires the viewer to watch it in the context of this era in filmmaking. We know a white man Jeff Chandler is playing Cochise. It is unfortunate and phony on one level but on another, let’s judge the film for what it is and when it was made. Through that lens, Chandler is actually quite good in the role too, especially in the way he handles himself physically.
With its faults in consideration, this is still one of the better films made about the conflict between white settles and Native Americans.
Seen on DVD.
There are a lot of good things about Walter Hill’s three hour TV Western, one that was clearly a pet project for actor Robert Duvall. But it’s also a frustrating experience. When you have this caliber of talent on screen and behind the camera, some of the weaknesses of the work are quite puzzling.
The biggest flaw in the film are plot holes revolving around character motivation. Why does James Russo leave his cargo to run off with just one of them on a little fling? It’s not established that his journey with them was particularly difficult: the women are well behaved and he has no reason to suddenly risk his secure job for a one night stand and some stolen cash. That’s the first in a long series of little snags in the plot that distract from what’s working overall. Some of the others include the small pox subplot (which never feels developed enough to feel real to me) and the fickleness of Duvall’s character about keeping or getting rid of the women. In three hours of narrative time, Hill (an amazing writer who didn’t write this) struggles to fully realize his characters.
Ironically, it’s Duvall who suffers the most from this and I suspect that he may have been too close to the material to see what it was lacking. First off, he plays only a slight variation on his characters in Lonesome Dove and Open Range. Yes, these men have different backgrounds but since that famous miniseries, Duvall has been playing versions of that character in each Western I’ve seen him in. Always watchable and always proving that he is one of the finest movie actors ever, Duvall nevertheless feels repetitive here. But it’s not the similarity with those past roles that bothered me most, it’s his character’s motivation and actions. I just don’t believe his hesitance to give it a go with Gretta Scacchi (who is nice to see again, much remembered from Presumed Innocent). No matter what little monologues they give him, it appears that Duvall wants to be with her and is even lonely without her and I think the actor/filmmaker fail to really capture what perverse quality in this man may be fighting against his own chance at happiness. By the end of the movie, I simply did not understand his choices and therefore, was not touched. Furthermore, the little “true story blurbs” frustrate me as well… from what I can see, the specifics of this story like the ones written about at the end are not true but fictitious. I hate when films mislead the audience like that.
It sounds like I don’t like the film which isn’t true. As I said in the beginning, there’s a lot of good here. The best part is Thomas Haden Church, who I never would have guessed fits a Western as well as he does. From his look to the way he carries himself and plays scenes, Thomas delivers. I wanted more of him and felt that the script short-changes his part more than it should. It’s too bad he hasn’t made Westerns a bigger part of his later career.
Because I’m on a journey to make my own Westerns and make them as well as I can, I am looking harder than ever at what doesn’t work in a film, to learn from it hopefully and not make similar mistakes. I still recommend Broken Trail. Regardless of its faults, Walter Hill’s work is always worth watching.
Seen on DVD