Broken Lance Review
Spencer Tracy stars as Matt Devereaux, the owner of a ranch in the Western United States, who operates as one of the biggest suppliers of beef cattle in the region but whose business is built on the effort of his four sons and the local Native American labour. Devereaux, though, hasn't built his ranch on compassion and his three eldest sons by his late first wife, Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O'Brian) and Denny (Earl Holliman), are bristling under his close watch and meagre salary of $40 a week, no more than is given to the hired hands. With two of them turning to cattle rustling from their own father's ranch, there's trouble on the Devereaux ranch, not helped by Devereaux's remarriage.
Other than his ranch, Devereaux only cares for his second wife, the Native American Princess (Katy Jurado) and their son, Joe (Robert Wagner), neither of whom have the respect of Devereaux's other sons, who look on their half-brother as a 'half-breed'. But when Devereaux's luck in the town runs out and he's threatened with jail, Joe is the only one of his sons who believes in taking the three-years of hard labour that would have been his father's. Three years, though, is a long time to be away and with Joe in prison, Ben, Mike and Denny take it over, selling land and mineral rights and leaving their father watching from his bed as his age finally catches up with him. Finally, Devereaux dies whilst trying to prevent the sale of his land and Joe swears revenge on his half-brothers, counting the days until his release and the taking of his revenge on his half-brothers.
Broken Lance must have looked impressive on its original release in 1953. It looks impressive now even on a television and never more so than when Spencer Tracy fills the screen as he rides towards it. Not to give anything away - that he is dead as the film opens is established within the film's opening minutes - but even having passed away whilst riding his horse, he cuts a figure more imposing than in many, many other films. Of course, much of this is due to what Broken Lance shows of his character, Matt Devereaux, an immigrant whose ancestors left Ireland during the famine. During a raid on his ranch, organised by Mike and Denny but the film suggests that Ben might have had a hand in it, we see that Matt is prepared to shoot his own farmhands dead and he's but a breath away from hanging his own sons. Later in the film, during his trial for the destruction of a copper mine, he admits to having killed before, including the hanging until dead of trespassers caught on his land. Similarly, Broken Lance reveals that his punishment of Mike and Denny was not a one-off and that come the time of Matt's marriage to Princess and the birth of Joe, his three eldest sons have their hearts minds pitched directly against their father and, given Matt's careful relationship with his last-born son, their half-brother.
Broken Lance could have been an obvious film, drawing a clear line between the good, as represented by Joe, and the evil, his half-brothers. But it's made more difficult than that by having Ben take care to explain the position that he and his brothers have taken against their own father, telling their half-brother that he had it comparitively easy by coming along when the Devereaux ranch was well-established and the living was that much easier than in the years after it was founded. It would take someone with a harder heart than that belonging to this viewer not to sympathise a little with Ben's position, which is only to unlock some of the value in the ranch. And yet, due to the intransigence of his father, this becomes, in the end, little more than a tale of death, imprisonment and vengeance. There are shades of King Lear in its tale of a landowner and three of his four sons but, good though it is, Broken Lance never takes that final step into greatness to stand alongside the best of Ford or Leone or even something from the leftfield like Django or My Name Is Nobody. It is good, though, and the equal of the likes of, say, Warlock, Tombstone and Garden Of Evil, which may endear you more to a rent than to a buy.
Although grainy, there's little wrong with the picture, with what grain there is coming about as a result of the original production rather than as a fault in the transfer. Indeed, so commonplace is a slight amount of grain in westerns of this age that it will be sorely missed as and when the first such genre film is made via purely digital means. Otherwise, the film is in fine condition on this DVD - sharp, detailed and with rich palette that flatters the film no end.
The main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 4.0, or LCRS (Left, Centre, Right and Surround), which is very good indeed, noticeably so in the moments when the viewer can clearly spot the film's use of directional effects such as the scene in which Joe, fresh from prison, returns to the abandoned Devereaux ranch. The mono soundtrack is almost as good with the entire A/V package leaving the film having enjoyed a great transfer onto DVD.
There are two extras, a Theatrical Trailer (2m38s) and a Fox Movietone News (51s) from 1954, which features the Acadamy Awards ceremony in which Broken Lance was awarded an Oscar for Best Writing with Katy Jurado nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
It has a Saturday-afternoon feeling about it and indeed you might have thought that it would have sat nicely beside another Dmytryk/Widmark western such as Warlock. This, though, is a less complex film than that, more that it's simply one to relax into and is enjoyable throughout, mostly due to the performances of Richard Widmark and Spencer Tracy. This DVD has been out for some time, though, and a Region 2 does exist but in comparing them, this looks the better of the two with the original four-channel sound mix and some, albeit not very many, extras.