Take it from Judge Ryan Keefer, Robert Duvall can make one good crab cake.
Our review of Broken Trail (Blu-Ray), published June 10th, 2008, is also available.
"So I went and got our horses and our money…had to stretch a fella…and you start a finishing school for Chinese girls…"
Robert Duvall has been in what is probably the best Western produced for television in Lonesome Dove. He's no stranger to the genre, also appearing in Open Range and Geronimo. Walter Hill has directed such Westerns as Wild Bill and Last Man Standing and has even directed an episode of Deadwood. So when the two are attached to a miniseries set in the West at turn of the century, the results have to be good, right?
Facts of the Case
Prentice Ritter (Duvall) has come to a farm in Montana to find his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways). He informs Tom of two things; one, that his mother died and left Prentice (or Print) with the family ranch. Two, Print has put the ranch up for collateral, to be used for a move of a large number of horses for transport into Wyoming with the dreams of a big payday, so that Tom won't have to worry about his job anymore. Anything has to be better than branding and neutering cattle, and Tom takes him up on the offer.
Along the journey, Print and Tom encounter a man who Tom decides would be a good assistant for the trail, a man named Heck Gilpin (Scott Cooper, Gods and Generals), who left some wealth behind in Virginia to explore the West. They also meet Billy Fender (James Russo, Beverly Hills Cop) a man who has bought some young Chinese girls (and plans to sell them at a mining town, where they are sure to be ravaged). One night, Billy leaves the girls and takes the cowboys' money, so the cowboys are left with the girls, who they decide to take. The mining town has a brothel owner named Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer, The Perfect Storm), who wants the girls and sends a ruthless killer named Big Ears (Chris Mulkey, North Country) after them and a prostitute named Nola (Greta Scacchi, Presumed Innocent). So while Print, Tom and Heck try to get the horses to Wyoming, they're dealing with quite a bit of drama.
What's not to love about Robert Duvall? The guy has lived in rural Virginia for a few years now, and was first brought to the attention of the townsfolk for helping to thwart the Disney Gestapo for establishing an outpost of tourism that would have potentially infringed on some of the Civil War landmarks in the state. He also owns a restaurant nearby that has some pretty decent food. All of this doesn't matter to most people I guess, but I wanted to take a moment to show off a little bit of civic pride, so sue me.
Having said all of that, whenever Duvall's name is above the line of anything that is set west of the Mississippi River and is dated anywhere from 1875-1904, you can reasonably assume that the quality should be top notch. This feature (which originally aired as a miniseries on the American Movie Channel) is another one of those cases. As Print, his ulterior motive for the trail (which is to quietly reconcile with Tom) is genuine, but what is also a bit of a surprise is that near the end of the series, Print is ultimately doing something to provide Tom with a different future. Church does well in the role of Tom (although with his facial hair, I can't help but thinks he looked the same way he did in Tombstone, when he played a villain). Despite the subconscious confusion, Tom's soft spoken nature was backed up by a fierce sense of right and wrong, which is something that Print has followed as well.
Hill's direction and the script by first-time screenwriter Alan Geoffrion really sticks close to Western values and sensibilities. There are a couple of cringe-inducing scenes involving animals that will startle you if you're not prepared for them. It's all part of what cowboys did in the West, so if you put it within that context it's not too bad, but hey, I wasn't used to seeing it again now that the humane society is supposed to be on set. A big thumbs up to the editor of the miniseries for making this work. An even bigger thumbs up to Hill for basically getting out of the way and letting the scenery speak for itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't know, but the burgeoning romantic relationship between Tom and one of the older girls bothered me. It's not that it was stupid or anything, because it was harmless and innocent enough, but it was the fact that the subplot (if you could call it that) seemed so unnecessary. Some people may say otherwise, because the girls were abused and even molested by Billy Fender, so something was needed to help show the girls' transformations. But seeing as how the girls were accepted almost from the word go by Print and Tom, I was finding myself almost lunging for the fast forward button on my remote.
Robert Duvall's work is comfort food for the eyes, ears and soul, as he turns in another superb effort, not to mention everyone else involved with the project. I was pleasantly surprised by what they all brought to the table, and this was one of the better Western features in recent memory that I've watched and enjoyed. If AMC re-airs this anytime soon (as I presume they will), by all means check it out.
A hearty not guilty for Duvall, Hill and the gang. Go enjoy the rest of your days in Sheridan, you've earned it.
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