Broken Lance (1954)
“Fury of the West’s Most Lawless Feud!”
Broken Lance (1954)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters
Synopsis: The saga of the Devereaux rancher family, set in 1880’s Arizona.
The passing of the Old West is a favourite subject for moviemakers, although it’s one that’s rarely explored outside of the context of an ageing gunslinger slowly coming to terms with the dying of the West in which he once thrived. In Broken Lance we have a man who never does come to terms with the passing of the West and who, rather than a gunslinger, is a respected cattle rancher. His name is Matt Devereaux, and he’s played with a grizzled gruffness by Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous, The Devil at 4 O’Clock). Devereaux still stands by the old methods of settling disputes with his neighbours, which gets him into deep water when he destroys a copper mine that has been polluting the river from which his steers drink.
Devereaux has four sons. Joe (Robert Wagner), the youngest, is the product of his marriage to an Indian squaw following the death of his first wife, and he has just been released from prison when the film opens. He is immediately summoned to the office of the State Governor (E. G. Marshall – 12 Angry Men) who tries to broker a deal between him and his estranged brothers which is essentially an offer from them of $10,000 for him to go away. Joe’s having none of it, and pays a visit to the old family home, now fallen into disrepair, which triggers a prolonged flashback during which we’re given an insight into the events that resulted in Joe spending those three years inside.
Broken Lance is a big, expensive-looking Western; it’s handsomely mounted and boasts a polished script, but stretches itself a little thin as it strives to cover such big subjects as racism, industrial pollution, government corruption and its collusion with big business. No doubt the latter three of these subjects at least are all symptomatic of a rapidly evolving society, but choosing to stir them all into the mix merely dilutes it and weakens the flavour. It’s a problem that’s particularly noticeable in the way that the characterisation of three of Devereaux’s four sons is weakened by lack of adequate screen time. The grievances of oldest son, Ben (Richard Widmark – The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock) are valid ones compounded by the fact that his sound business advice is repeatedly disregarded by his father, and yet this potentially powerful storyline is sacrificed to allow time for an insipid romance between Joe and Governor’s daughter Barbara (Jean Peters – Apache). At least Widmark gets a big dramatic scene – Hugh O’Brian (Ambush Bay, The Shootist) and Earl Holliman (The Bridges at Toko-Ri) might as well be cardboard cut-outs for all the work they have to do as the middle brothers.
Needless to say, it’s Tracy who imposes himself on Broken Lance, thanks not only to screen time but to the accumulation of twenty-five years’ experience upon which he was able to draw. While the four younger actors never convince as brothers, Tracy is always believable as a father to each of them. Wagner, in the brief period before bland smoothness uprooted the youthful edginess on display here, also gives a surprisingly good account of himself. The splendid Katy Jurado, as Tracy’s screen wife, however, is reduced to mostly gazing upon proceedings with an ever-strained expression of pious nobility.
(Reviewed 11th March 2015)