A Trail Through the Hills with Duvall and Church
Having been impressed by Robert Duvall in the western "Open Range", I sat down to watch the epically long "Broken Trail" hoping to be impressed. As such it surprised me when at the 90 minute mark, the half-way point, for the credits to roll; followed by some more opening credits and what was basically part two. I was unaware that "Broken Trail" was a mini series rather than just one very long movie but it made no difference because for the most I enjoyed what I watched and it explained why "Broken Trail" felt at times drawn out, giving more detail than you would expect from a regular movie.
In the year 1989 Prentice 'Print' Ritter (Robert Duvall - John Q) tracks down his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church - Sideways) and offers him a chance to earn some money driving horses on a trail. Agreeing they set off with their herd of 500 horses but along the way they find their numbers swelling as they pick up a fiddle player and a group of Chinese girls who were being taken to become whores. But their swelling numbers cause issues as they find themselves coming up against some rivals determined to kidnap the girls and take them as slaves.
There is a very simple way to describe "Broken Trail" it is essentially a western trail movie, the sort where we watch what happens to the main characters as they navigate the wild west trail driving horses along the way. As such it is fair to say that there is a certain amount of predictably to "Broken Trail" you know that on their journey Prentice and Tom will pick up some stragglers, face some bad guys, find love and whilst completing their mission will end up in a gun fight with some no good bad guys. But that is not a criticism as that is exactly what a trail movie should be and "Broken Trail" masterfully covers all the crucial points.
But whilst predictable the storyline is also well worked as after an opening scene where we watch the brutal Chinese slave trade where virginal girls are sold to become whores we get introduced to the main characters Prentice and Tom. It's nicely done because it doesn't take long to get in to the main storyline, the actual trail but at the same time almost insinuating that Tom at some point had gone of the rails and his Uncle Prentice is in a sly way offering him a fresh start. It's by no means heavy handed, just simply crafted so we know what we need to know and can guess the rest.
Then as already mentioned along the way Prentice and Tom through various events pick up a small group of followers, firstly their is the fiddle player, then there are those poor Chinese girls who find themselves being looked after by Prentice having been sold into slavery and then finally a Chinese man and madam Nola Johns also find themselves along for the ride. Strangely it doesn't feel wrong that Prentice and Tom end up having this small group with them as we are immediately aware that they are a moral duo with a kind heart. And it equally doesn't feel wrong that as the story winds its way along the trail that they finally end up rubbing some people up the wrong way and of course end up in a gun fight.
But here is the thing director Walter Hill does a good job of telling the story filling the screen with beautiful sunlit mountain backdrops and the reality of life on the trail but at the same time he makes it feel drawn out. He's never in a rush to move onto the next scene quite happy to spend plenty of time developing characters, building relationships and delighting with the scenery, which it has to be said, is breath taking. But it makes "Broken Trail" a very slow movie, a well made slow movie, but too slow for many and in reality everything you watch in "Broken Trail" has been done before in other westerns which take a lot less time to get from point A to B. In a way it reminds me of "Brokeback Mountain" in the way Hill plays it slowly taking all the time in the world whilst in awe of the landscape.
But it is not all slow, slow, slow as at its heart "Broken Trail" is a western and as such there is action. Now of course action means gun action and the big climax, the much anticipated gunfight is both beautifully shot and choreographed. It's not the most fast paced shoot out but it has power and surprise. But the action in "Broken Trail" also means watching the reality of driving horses across country and it is impressive to watch these powerful animals gallop up hills as well as the brutal reality that things go wrong when driving so many horses.
As mentioned before I watched "Broken trail" because I was impressed by Robert Duvall in "Open Range" and he equally impressed again. Duvall has something so believable about him, he looks so natural when it comes to being the cowboy, the wise old one who has a kind heart but is also slightly dangerous. It makes for a pleasant experience watching someone so skilful playing a cowboy, managing to mix kindliness with violence and also just a touch of comedy. And it has to be said that Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church make a good team as Prentice and Tom. Church really gets into the character the tough younger cowboy who has obviously at some point gone off the rails and as such has inner demons simmering away. Their interplay the Uncle and nephew works so well.
But Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church are not alone when it comes to impressive performance as Greta Scacchi shines as the whore desperate to get away from her life. And alongside Scacchi you have a whole collection of beautiful performances from the young Chinese girls as well as Donald Fong who plays Lung Hay. In fact it is fair to say there is not a single bad performance in "Broken Trail" with them all working wonderfully together.
What this all boils down to is that "Broken Trail" is impressive and not just because it is long. It is impressive as it tells a wonderful story, features brilliant performances and some stunning camera work/scenery. It is long and director Walter Hill does take his time to establish characters and relationships but when you get to the end it feels like a truly worthwhile watch. It may have been a TV series but "Broken Trail" works impressively as a movie.