"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Broken Lance (Fox, 1954)

They went for the big picture

Fox’s Broken Lance in 1954 was a big Western. It was big-budget and released amid much bally-hoo. It had a towering performance by Spencer Tracy in the lead. It had huge, sweeping Arizona vistas photographed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald. It was one of those passionate family dramas so beloved by Americans, written by Philip Yordan and Oscar-winning. It had big stars. It was a big critical and box-office hit.

Hot-tempered self-made cattle baron Matt Devereaux (Tracy) feuds with his sons (Richard Widmark, Earl Holliman, Hugh O’Brian, Robert Wagner) over direction of the ranch, over whether to act within or outside the law, over money, power, love; over pretty much everything really. There’s action a-plenty as Matt decides to take the law into his own hands by attacking a powerful copper mining company that is polluting the water and killing his cattle. He is arraigned and faces trial. The excellent Russell Simpson is the judge, so he should be alright.
The brothers
It rather depends on your definition of Western as to how many Tracy was in. He started in 1940 with the frankly dire Northwest Passage, an 18th century musket-and-coonskin-cap tale. Some may consider as a Western Boom Town of the same year, a story of two men (Tracy and Clark Gable) who move from being wildcatters to oil tycoons. The Elia Kazan-directed Sea of Grass came out in 1947, another sweeping if rather elephantine family saga-style ‘Western’. Later, there was Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a superb psychological study but again hardly a Western in the estimation of many. Really, only Broken Lance and the interminable and plodding How the West Was Won (1962) were Westerns in the true sense. We can’t really think of Tracy as a Western actor.
Tracy and Jurado. Jurado's best Western performance since High Noon.
Broken Lance has quality, though. On one level just another treatment of the clichéd cattle baron story, it does in fact have more. There is a theme of racial (in)tolerance, for one thing. Matt Devereaux’s wife is an Indian woman presenting herself as Mexican (Katy Jurado, replacing Dolores del Rio – Ms. del Rio was to get to play a similar part, though, in 1960 in Flaming Star). The first three sons are by a previous marriage of Devereaux and therefore ‘white’, while Joe, the baby of the family (Wagner), is by Señora Devereaux and thus a ‘half-breed’. The family is riven. There are political repercussions too when the Governor (EG Marshall), an erstwhile ally of Matt, is upset because half-breed Joe is romancing his posh Eastern-educated daughter Barbara (Jean Peters).

In a Lear-like division, ownership of the ranch is broken up between the sons (naturally his wife can’t own it) and then Joe, who really loves his father, takes the rap for him and goes to prison for three years. When he comes out he learns that dad has died of a heart attack. Should Joe now revenge himself upon his faithless brothers? You sort of want him to. The title may give you a clue as to what he decides.
Cinemascope photography by Joe MacDonald of Arizona locations
So it’s a pretty complex plot (I’ve only given you the bare bones). There are shades of The Brothers Karamazov in it and Edward G Robinson had played a Matt Devereaux-esque role in Fox’s House of Strangers in 1949 about Italo-American bankers in New York. In 1961 the same story was put in a circus setting, again by Fox, in The Big Show. So it was a plot that could be recycled handily. It dealt with racial intolerance and sibling rivalry. It was a winner.

Katy Jurado’s Señora Devereaux is wonderful. She is quietly loyal and loving to Tracy’s Matt Devereaux yet once again shows independence, spirit and courage. It is a subtle, sensitive, nuanced performance and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for it (though the Award went to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront). Her performance ranks with High Noon as her greatest Western work.

In a 1955 interview with Louella Parsons, Ms. Jurado commented on the Indian roles she was given, "I don't mind dramatic roles. I love to act, any character at all. But just once I would like to be my Mexican self in an American motion picture".

Widmark, in his last work for Fox before severing relations, was probably the best of the sons, as the bitter one full of venom. In one scene in particular he vents his hatred of his father with scorn and spleen. In fact, Tracy was a great hero of Widmark's.
Widmark: angry
Director Edward Dmytryk did The Caine Mutiny the same year and was a hot property. He did six Westerns altogether, The Hawk in 1935, Broken Lance, Raintree County (if you consider that a Western) in 1957, Warlock (1959), Alvarez Kelly (1966), and Shalako in 1968.

The New York Times called it "refreshingly serious" and The Hollywood Reporter said it was "a hard-hitting Western". OK. For me it's overblown, even a tad pretentious. But it's worthwhile for Jurado and Widmark.

You probably need to see this movie as a famous example of the genre, though don’t expect greatness otherwise.



  1. This picture never worked for me. I have to confess that part might be because I hate Spencer Tracey; but, really, it just seems bloated and dull.

    1. Yes, I've never been a great fan. Perhaps because I don't much care for 'family saga' dramas.
      And Tracy was never a Western actor.
      It does have its points though.
      Worth a watch but nowhere near greatness would be my verdict!

  2. I had fond memories of this film from my earliest viewing at age 5. A double feature with GARDEN OF EVIL on the RKO circuit in NYC in 1955. Having seen both recently I believe the fond memory is from the latter. Watching BROKEN LANCE yesterday I found the soap opera overbearing and can't imagine sitting through it at age 5. The candy and popcorn must have been exceptional. And of course anything in color, with air conditioning, in a beautiful old opera house was OK too.

    1. How true that fancy movie theaters often disguised indifferent movies! It sounds like a great double bill (oh, happy days) but I absolutely agree with you that GARDEN OF EVIL was infinitely superior to BROKEN LANCE.