Broken Lance Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Broken Lance. One of a recent batch of Westerns released by Optimum, the film has Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark but sadly lingers in overly melodramatic territory.

Almost immediately Broken Lance impresses you with its CinemaScope frame (it was one of the very first Westerns to be shot in the process). The film opens with Robert Wagner coming out of prison after a three year stint and he’s positively dwarfed not only by the wide ratio, but also by the way in which it captures his most recent of homes. The following scene tells the same story, with Wagner once again seeming utterly tiny and inconsequential as he enters the building which houses his brothers’ business. The three of them are led by the eldest, Richard Widmark, who makes Wagner a business proposition – the offer to expand the family firm by setting up a ranch in Oregon – one which is swiftly, and rudely, turned down and results in Wagner fleeing to his childhood home. It’s now an abandoned wreck almost gothic in its appearance and still playing home to a portrait of the brothers’ father. Of course, we’re supposed to recognise the painting’s subject and we do: it’s Spencer Tracy. And of course, we can’t have a film in which Tracy is dead and so, through flashbacks, we learn of the familial strife which has led to Wagner’s current situation.

Sadly, this move into the past is the wrong one. Director Edward Dmytryk has thus far gotten us intrigued and created a mood without giving too much away. But in shifting the focus to the past this mood is effectively dissipated and rather than the gothic Western we may expect, we are instead lumbered with a melodramatic one. Broken Lance was Dmytryk’s first foray into the genre, so a slight shift away from the norm may have been expected, but judging from previous career – one in which he made a series of terrific thrillers including Farewell, My Lovely, Crossfire and The Sniper – you would have guessed at something a bit tauter than what’s on offer here (indeed, something more in line with the opening scenes). Of course, the Western is a highly malleable form and one that can easily accommodate changes – and as such there’s nothing wrong with a melodramatic Western per se – but sadly the melodrama simply isn’t up to par.

The principle problem is that the dramatic content in the flashbacks is so at odds with the scenes which introduce them. Much of what happens acts as mere exposition or is wholly peripheral (a subplot involving Wagner’s romance with Jean Peters and the sparks it creates owing to his status as a half-breed), rather than moving forward to the events we have witnessed at the start of the picture. These scenes do, however, give Tracy the chance flex his acting muscles (it’s a far less interior performance than his other 1954 role, Bad Day at Black Rock) as well as a spot of whip brandishing, but they also neglect Widmark. As the film’s chief villain surely he requires a little more than standing in the background whilst the familial dramas are played out. Indeed, when the narrative wheels are finally set into motion everything happens a little too quickly as the discontent and backstabbing emerges from nowhere meaning that it rarely convinces.

That said, Broken Lance is by no means a complete failure and remains watchable courtesy of Tracy’s central performance (Wagner, on the other hand, stumbles on the melodrama and comes across as especially wooden) and some fine widescreen photography, but it also proves a huge disappointment as it never able to live up to its initial promise.

The Disc

Broken Lance is presented anamorphically in its original CinemaScope ratio. Admittedly the print could do with a little sprucing up, but what’s on offer is hardly a disappointment. The colours lack the requisite sharpness at times and there is the occasional evident grain resulting in some visible artefacting, but these problems are mostly negligible. As for the sound, the disc fails to offer the original four channel mix that would have accompanied cinema screenings and instead provides DD2.0 option. This in itself offers no discernible problems, however, with dialogue remaining audible throughout. As with Optimum’s other Western releases, the disc is completely devoid of extras.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Apr 19, 2005

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