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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Telefilm > Broken Trail (Western)

Broken Trail (Western/Sony DVD)


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: C     Film: A-



Walter Hill once said that all of his movies, regardless of their genre, are Westerns in one way or another.  That makes sense since his work is nearly always steeped in Americana and deals with the courage of men in perilous situations no matter what the setting may be.


Hill was born to direct Westerns and Robert Duvall was born to star in them, so it's no surprise that Duvall and Hill ended up crossing paths when Duvall co-starred in Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), one of many underrated films by America's most underrated auteur.


Duvall and Hill again make a perfect team in Broken Trail, the first movie made for American Movie Classics, where it premiered in two parts to great ratings in late June of 2006.


Broken Trail ranks second only to United 93 as the finest film I've seen so far in '06, but since it never played in theaters, it won't qualify for year-end best-10 lists.  If there's any justice, though, director Hill and producer/star Duvall will find themselves holding Emmy Awards next year for this superior piece of work.


Like many a classic Western, Broken Trail is about a long, arduous journey over rugged terrain that's fraught with peril.  But this one has a unique twist.


Set in 1897, the film begins with the aging Print Ritter (Duvall) reuniting with his estranged nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church), to transport a herd of horses from Oregon to a ranch in Wyoming.  Here's the twist: Print and Tom's journey becomes anything but routine after they encounter five young Chinese women (Gwendoline Yeo, Caroline Chan, Olivia Cheng, Valerie Tian and Jadyn Wong) being led cross-country by an abusive, drunken lout (James Russo), who plans to sell them into a life of prostitution.


Despite the language barrier (the young women don't speak a word of English), Print and Tom decide to do the honorable thing and try to find a safe haven for the five frightened girls.


Along the way, they encounter good people such as a young fiddler (Scott Cooper), an abused prostitute (Greta Scacchi) and an elderly Chinese man (Donald Fong), as well as some very bad people including a madam called Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer), who paid for the five Asian girls to work in her brothel, and hires a brutal convict (Chris Mulkey) to track them down.


At 184 minutes, Broken Trail can take its time and let scenes play longer than usual.  This allows for plenty of wonderful moments that give us insight into characters we genuinely come to care about -- there are a couple of beautiful scenes between Duvall and Scacchi that are especially moving -- Scacchi is also deserving of an Emmy.


Despite some sporadic bursts of gunplay, you get the feeling Hill probably had to tone down his usual level of violence for basic cable, but he again proves himself a master in staging intense confrontations.  Unexpectedly, however, for being a director who's largely associated with macho men's movies, Hill's latest is more attuned than most Westerns to the sufferings of women in a male-dominated Old West.


From the sumptuous photography of scenic Calgary-area locations by frequent Hill cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II to the superb performances to dialogue that sounds just right for the time and place, Broken Trail is something we don't see enough of these days -- a great Western.


The DVD version of Broken Trail from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment splits the 184-minute film two 92-minute segments on two separate discs.  The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer nicely captures the beautiful frontier locales with sharp picture quality and good English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.  The only special feature is a 30-minute "making of" documentary on disc two featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with many cast and crew members.  Since our last posting of this review, this has also been issued on Blu-ray.


If you're a fan of Westerns, Broken Trail is not to be missed.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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