***/**** Image A+ Sound B+
starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters, Richard Widmark
screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on the novel by by Philip Yordan
directed by Edward Dmytryk
by Walter Chaw Released the same year as his better-known The Caine Mutiny, disgraced director Edward Dmytryk's melancholic Broken Lance completes a double-pronged apologia for naming names before the HUAC. With the former film, Dmytryk sees himself possessed by madness; with the latter, he sees himself at the mercy of a world obsessed with rituals emptied of their meaning--and all the things he loves betrayed by his dogged fidelity to an older code of ethics. Though Broken Lance is often compared to "King Lear", it's more accurate to call it a run at the kind of end-of-the-trail film that would crop up a lot more in the western genre during the 1960s (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cimarron, and so on). But the film is the death knell for one man's--Dmytryk's--idealism, and what's fascinating is the extent to which the passing of a single man's hope registers in nearly the same key as the passing of the Old West as a genre. The saga of masculinity as it's embedded in the western clarifies itself with just this one, small, eloquent example.
The youngest of Matt Devereaux's (Spencer Tracy) four sons, Joe (Robert Wagner) is dark-eyed and handsome, the peacekeeper and a natural to take over Matt's hardscrabble cattle kingdom. Unfortunately, he's shackled by his lack of ambition, the resentment of his oldest half-brother, Ben (Richard Widmark), and the fact that his mother is Senora (Katy Jurado), an Indian whom Matt's business associates euphemize as Mexican but whose heritage brands Joe a social leper--a half-breed. When Joe falls in love with plucky Barbara (Jean Peters), the governor's daughter, the governor (E.G. Marshall)--in one of the film's best passages--expresses to Matt his regret that he's unable to overlook Joe's biological heritage. As the film opens, Joe is released from prison and escorted to the governor's office, where his brothers offer him a bribe (which includes Barbara) to entice him to sell his portion of the Devereaux ranch, which has been allowed to lie fallow by his laggard half-brothers since Joe's incarceration.
The spectre of blood corruption hangs over Broken Lance inescapable and impossible to disguise--Joe's charisma, his essential unassailable goodness, is the grist for life's implacable mill. It's an act of ego, no doubt, for Dmytryk to posit him as the younger version of his alter ego (Matt), the inheritor of the realm who, once he comes to take possession of what is by right his, finds an overgrown Manderly rent to the ground by the pettiness of his kin and the caprice of a shifting political climate. It's self-pitying and, in its worst moments, it gives into the temptation to wail against the indignities of it all, but Tracy and Wagner provide an emotional balance to the piece that forgives it a lot of its potential mawkishness. When Matt wields a bullwhip against the copper mill owner poisoning his herd's water supply, or when Joe declares that he has no choice but to take the bullet for his father's temper and go off to prison, there's a feeling of something like nobility in its animal logic: the old man on the one side, fighting his own obsolescence in the only, brutal, way he knows--and the young man becoming old, sacrificing his youth to soothe the sins of the fathers. A haunted picture from the first astonishing CinemaScope vista to the last, Broken Lance, in its scrutiny of the cult of manhood, explores the quintessential questions that a good western asks. And though it's easy to trace the hows of how it reaches its conclusions, it stands as one of the earliest elegies to the dying of the West.
Fox shepherds Broken Lance to DVD in a gorgeous--gorgeous!--2.51:1 anamorphic video transfer that places all the rich colours front and centre in an impossibly lush, filmic presentation. Enhancement artifacts are kept minimal (including almost no banding, for instance), while a few dense patterns display no hint of moiré. The flipside features a pan-and-scan version that retains about 80% of the vibrancy while sacrificing half the image. The Dolby Digital 4.0 audio is likewise terrific, demonstrating smart separation and, especially in Joe's return to the family haunts, a surprising amount of directional atmospherics. The final howl of an iconic coyote whines in a satisfying way that spreads from channel to channel. Rounding out the disc: the theatrical trailer (in 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced widescreen), sharing space with a Movietone newsreel (3 mins.) on the 1954 Academy Awards that mentions Broken Lance screenwriter Philip Yordan's win in passing. Originally published: June 6, 2005.