Broken Lance (1954)
A Broken Lance, a Broken Family but not a Broken Movie
Westerns are often given a bad name, people tend to think of simple movies about a cowboy seeking vengeance, big gunfights and often John Wayne, but there are a lot more to westerns than just those cliches. Take "Broken Lance" starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner and Richard Widmark an impressive movie with an impressive story about a feuding family, a western dynasty and a series of events which lead to the family feud. Yes it has those western elements, the gun fights, fist fights and bravado filled stand offs but the storyline takes you on this brilliant journey, of greed, regret and loyalty.
Having just spent 3 years in prison, Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner - Wild Things) is brought back to his home town where his brothers Ben (Richard Widmark - Death of a Gunfighter), Mike (Hugh O'Brian) and Denny (Earl Holliman) now run the family business built up by their late foreboding father, Matt (Spencer Tracy - Pat and Mike). Offered the chance to be part of the business once more, Joe's anger at his brothers boils over and departs to the family ranch which is now in ruin. There he reminisces about the events some 3 years earlier which lead to him being sent to prison and the feud which surfaced not just between him and his brothers but also between Ben and their father.
One of the first things to hit you, even before the storyline starts, is that "Broken Lance" is an impressive looking movie. Director Edward Dmytryk used the relatively new CinemaScope to capture the stunning landscape and more importantly the sheer magnitude of it. When we meet Joe he is dwarfed by the landscape and this carries on as Dmytryk uses the new power of CinemaScope to really give "Broken Lance" a huge feel, something almost of an epic stature.
Once you get over how impressive "Broken Lance" looks you are not let down when it comes to the story. It starts at a point where Joe has just spent 3 years in prison and we become aware of the feud between him and his brothers before taking us back to before his incarceration. Naturally this leads us to wonder as to why Joe has been in Prison but what caused the issues between brothers and as "Broken Lance" progresses we learn of why. But it doesn't rush to tell us, it has a storyline about a family, an old fashioned western dynasty to tell and as such there are plenty of back stories.
We learn how Joe is in fact Ben, Mike and Denny's half brother thanks to his father Matt remarrying and to add to this he is also half blood with his mother being an Indian. At the same time we get a picture of the changing west with Matt wanting to run things his way from the ranch, where problems were sorted by the use of fists and guns, whilst Ben wants to movie things into the town. What all this achieves, and other sub stories such as a romance, is to paint a picture of not only a changing West but one which affects a family.
Of course the feuding family is not all which "Broken Lance" is about, we have an issue over a tin mine polluting the stream on the Devereaux land which is the major catalyst to why Joe ends up in prison and as to why the family finally fractures. It's not so much a clever element, but one which is interesting; it makes it more than just a standard western as it throws up a few twists. It answers those questions which are posed within the first 15 minutes and rather than just stopping there we switch back to the present with the issues between Joe and Ben coming to a head.
What all this does is make "Broken Lance" more than just another western; it's a drama, a look at a troubled, broken family which as the West changes becomes more troubled. It's by no means the best eulogy to a changing West where arguments are fought out in court rather than with guns, but it makes it all the more fascinating. And couple this with some western traditions, the gun fights, fist fights, stand offs and various other moments of action and you have a movie which grabs you not just by the action but by the storyline as well.
As for the acting well Spencer Tracy is brilliant as the patriarch Matt Devereaux a man who has earned what he's got the hard way, he's roughed it, worked hard and sacrificed a lot for what he's got. Tracy really delivers that believability of some one who lives life the way of the old west and who struggles with the way it's changing. He also comes across brilliantly as a tyrannical father who never really bonded with his 3 eldest children, too busy to be a father as he built up his empire, acting more like their boss. As such Richard Widmark is as always solid as his eldest son Ben and you really get a sense of the resentment he has both towards his father and his half brother Joe.
But it is Robert Wagner who is the most impressive giving the character of Joe a tempestuous side, almost a cowboy rebel without a care and as such Joe is an interesting character, more than just a 2 dimensional one.
What this all boils down to is that "Broken Lance" is truly an impressive western. Visually it delivers wonderful shots of the impressive landscape and is by no means lacking when it comes to those standard western moments of gun fighting action. But it is the storyline, the look into a family dynasty fracturing under the father's control as the way of the west changes which makes it so good. It makes it so much more than just another stereotypical western but one which captivates you with the storyline about the feuding family.
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