Remakes have popped up here from time to time in the past and they often divide opinion among movie fans, not only based on their relative merits but also on whether there’s any point in producing them at all. For me, the best remakes, or at least the more interesting ones, try to do something different with the material. For example, the casting may radically alter perspective, or the source material (say, a novel which has been adapted) might be adhered to more faithfully. Shifting from one genre to another – which I feel was successfully achieved with High Sierra and Colorado Territory – is another potentially fruitful option. And this leads me to Broken Lance (1954), which essentially recycles Philip Yordan’s screenplay for House of Strangers and transposes the action from New York to the old west.
Newly released from prison, Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner) is “invited” to the governor’s office in town to be presented with a proposition. His three brothers – Ben, Mike and Denny (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman) – aren’t exactly thrilled to meet him and instead offer a ranch in Oregon and $10,000 in cash, on condition he catches the next train out of town. At this stage it’s unclear to the viewer why Joe’s siblings are so keen to see the back of him, or why he so contemptuously deposits the proffered money in a spittoon. It’s only after a ride across the vast, open country to the now abandoned family home that the pieces begin to fall into place. As Joe stands amid the dust-choked remnants of his old life, staring at the huge portrait of his now deceased father, his thoughts drift back to earlier days. We see Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy), the gruff Irish patriarch who has tamed a land and is now doing his level best to tame his four sons. Joe is the youngest and his favorite, born of his Indian wife (Katy Jurado), while the others are the product of an earlier marriage. That Mike and Denny are bad apples is immediately apparent when they’re caught attempting to rustle cattle from their own ranch, and Ben’s resentment is seen to be simmering close to the surface as well. The main theme – although it’s by no means the only one – is that of fractured family relations. As the boys have grown into men and the frontier is similarly maturing, the cracks within the Devereaux clan are starting to show. The old man, while not without charm, is of that hard, pioneering breed accustomed to enforcing their will with a six-gun, a whip or a rope. However, times move on and priorities alter along with them. Ben feels that progress requires a change in the way the family business is run, yet he lacks the courage to face down his father directly to effect that change. So there’s tension in the air, but it really only comes to a head when pollution leaking from the local copper workings leads Matt into violent confrontation with the miners. Sadly, from the aging rancher’s perspective, frontier justice has no place in this new world where corporate interests are beginning to assert themselves. With the prospect of a lengthy prison term for his father looming, Joe offers to shoulder the blame as his brothers shirk the responsibility one by one. What ought to have been a nominal sentence turns into a long stretch though as Ben flat refuses to pay the hefty compensation demanded. The result is the exposure of all the old wounds and ultimately the disintegration of a family.
Edward Dmytryk couldn’t be said to be a western specialist yet he made a couple of very strong entries with this one and Warlock. One thing that’s apparent right from the opening credits is the director’s comfort with the wide CinemaScope ratio. Dmytryk’s use of the wide lens (though cameraman Joe MacDonald deserves credit here too) to capture the sense of enormous, uncluttered spaces is quite awe-inspiring at times; it contrasts nicely with the packed interior scenes in town, and neatly highlights the restrictive nature of the advance of progress. This aspect is further highlighted during the trial sequence, where Matt Devereaux, formerly at ease and supremely confident out on the range, alternately squirms and blusters on the stand. Of course it’s also a tribute to Tracy’s acting skills that this works so well. He was arguably the greatest of all naturalistic performers, reacting as opposed to acting. His irascible bravado has an undercurrent of twitchy nervousness, he moves uncomfortably in his chair under the disapproving glare of prosecutor and judge, and is in sharp relief to his earlier scenes where he’s “holding court” in his own home. What we have is a man out of time, or almost, becoming increasingly limited by both the law and his own physical frailty, just as the frontier itself is slowly withering in the face of encroaching civilization.
In a sense, westerns represent an opportunity to dip into the past, to catch a glimpse of an era now gone and existing as no more than a memory. Broken Lance actually mirrors this within its narrative structure, by means of the long central flashback. As viewers we’re invited to take a trip to yesteryear via images on a screen, and Joe Devereaux does something very similar before our eyes; as he gazes upon the imposing portrait of his late father he finds himself transported back to the days and weeks leading up to his imprisonment. Characters pass comment on how much Joe has changed after his incarceration, and I feel Wagner did highly creditable work in the movie. There is a noticeable difference in both his bearing and attitude in the contemporary bookend sequences and the flashback. Wagner isn’t often praised for his acting but I reckon he quite successfully makes the transition from fresh-faced enthusiasm to bitter maturity over the course of the film’s 90 minutes. No doubt the fact he was up against such heavyweights as Tracy and Widmark helped him up his game. Widmark though seems to have little to do for long stretches, really only coming into his own in the final third. His discontented elder sibling is always there as a brooding sideline presence, but the full effects of the denial of parental trust and affection only break through gradually. When the explosion finally comes we’re treated to vintage Widmark – all snarling hatred and half-repressed racism.
The racial matter is never entirely to the fore in the film, although it is of significance and always lurks just below the surface. The difficult legal position in which Matt Devereaux finds himself is at least partly exacerbated by his marriage to an Indian, and then there’s the prejudice the Governor (E G Marshall) cannot overcome at the thought of his daughter’s (Jean Peters) involvement with a half-breed. The casting of Katy Jurado, the cinematic epitome of soulful dignity, really hammers home the anti-racist message for me. As her family first squabbles and then tears itself apart in an orgy of greed and ambition, she remains the one calm, loving and forgiving constant, surrounded by a sea of pettiness and jealousy. It’s interesting too that following her husband’s death, she moves back to her own people while the three sons of the first marriage relocate to the town and luxury – the ranch lying abandoned, the most positive figure reverting to traditional ways and the negative ones embracing the brave new world of progress. As such, I think this film earns a slot in what we sometimes refer to as the pro-Indian cycle of westerns. Aside from Jean Peters as the spirited love interest for Wagner, most of the others in the fairly big cast are subsidiary characters. E G Marshall gets to indulge in a bit of stiff self-reproach, but Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman have little else to do other than skulk around in Widmark’s sneering wake.
Broken Lance is widely available on DVD nowadays – it’s out on Blu-ray in France although I suspect that edition will have forced subtitles, and the Spanish version is reportedly a BD-R. I have the old UK release from about 10 years ago, which is still a very strong disc. The image is very sharp and clean and does a fine job of showing off the widescreen cinematography. Unfortunately, for such a rich movie, there are no extra features whatsoever offered. As remakes go, Broken Lance is one of the very best in my opinion. House of Strangers (which can itself be taken as a spin on King Lear) is a fine film in its own right but I feel the story is actually improved upon in this instance. By moving the location and turning it into a western, a number of other themes are more productively (or maybe more interestingly) explored – anyway, it’s sufficiently different and worthwhile to be judged on its own terms rather than comparatively. The characterization is complex, the writing smart, and the direction and cinematography are first class, with what looks a lot like a nod to Anthony Mann in the climactic scene high among the rocks – a highly recommended western that stands out even in the crowded field of 50s classics.