Broken Lance (1954)

Broken LanceWhen it comes to pure acting chops, Spencer Tracy had few equals. In a career that spanned four decades, Tracy won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated 9 times, a record he shares with Laurence Olivier. Let’s take a look at one of his only western performances, 1954’s Broken Lance.

For 25 years, Matt Devereaux (Tracy) worked to carve out a ranch and a life for his family in the American southwest. He accomplished his goal, creating one of the most well-respected ranches in Texas…but at the expense of his sons, elder Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), Denny (Earl Holliman) and his youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner). The three older boys have long resented how they’re treated as workers and cowboys and not family. As he ages and as the west continues to develop, Matt has to face what to do next, both with his family and the cattle and mining empire he has created.

I’ve made no bones about my thoughts on 1950s westerns. (Spoilers Alert: They’re typically not my favorite). While ‘Broken’ has plenty of positives, my typical complaints are there. The family story plays out like a soap opera, heavy and brooding from the word ‘go.’ It feels like a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy as the Devereaux family tears itself apart. Director Edward Dmytryk has plenty of talent on hand, and the story is interesting but in the end I came away with a ‘meh’ review of a 96-minute flick.

In telling this story, Dmytryk uses a cool storytelling technique, Wagner’s Joe released from prison after a 3-year sentence. We don’t know why or what he did. Minutes later, we see him meet the governor and his three brothers, ominously, forebodingly offering him $10,000 to move along and never come back. It’s a great little intro…that never quite clicks once the story flashes back to what drove the story to this point. When the two stories click, it lacks that great energy, that connection that I was hoping for. Still, cool points for trying.

Playing the Devereaux family patriarch, Tracy does not disappoint in the starring role. He’s far from a heroic lead, his Matt a harsh, driving man who – usually – means well but has had to make some tough decisions along the way. He’s tried to build a life for his family and has succeeded, but it’s come at a price. His dynamic with his youngest son, Wagner’s Joe, provides the best moments in the movie. Wagner too delivers an understated, effective performance as Joe, a half-white, half-Comanche young man.

The coolest performance goes to Katy Jurado who plays Senora, a Comanche woman who married Matt after his first wife died. She’s not Mexican but people call her “Senora” because it’s easier than addressing the elephant in the room that a white man married an Indian. It’s a quiet, moving, scene-stealing performance as she tries to hold the family together as everyone starts grabbing for pieces to control. Jurado deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part, ultimately losing to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.

While the rest of the cast has some name recognition, they’re not given much to do. One of the best heavies ever, Widmark is the leader of the three older Devereaux boys, but unfortunately his character is off-screen for far too long. O’Brian may say 8 words the whole movie, and Holliman is the brother kinda sorta caught in between. Eduard Franz plays ranch foreman Two Moons, E.G. Marshall is the weakling governor, and Jean Peters plays his daughter, Barbara, a love interest for Joe that feels bleh and forced.

I wanted to like this one more, especially as I read reviews of folks who loved it. The cast is worth it alone, even if the storyline doesn’t give much of them to do. Some cool locations in Arizona spice things up with a true sense of the desert wilderness as well. Flawed but good, worthwhile for Tracy, Wagner and Jurado in solid performances.

Broken Lance (1954): ** 1/2 /****

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The Man from the Alamo (1953)

poster_of_the_movie_the_man_from_the_alamoOne of the legends of the battle of the Alamo is that late in the siege, Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand, asking the men who were willing to stay and fight to cross over the line. Supposedly, only one man chose not to, a Napoleonic veteran named Louis Rose. Did it really happen? Probably not, but it remains an enduring story almost 200 years later. The premise is certainly interesting though, and here it is, delivered with a twist, 1953’s The Man from the Alamo.

With the Mexican army surrounding the fort, the defenders of the Alamo desperately wait for reinforcements. Word has reached the defenders that raiding parties are attacking settlers and homesteads, including one area well-represented in the Alamo. A group of defenders draw straws to see who will leave the potentially doomed mission to look after the families. The one chosen? John Stroud (Glenn Ford), a tough, hard-working farmer who’s never run from a fight before but now he must. Stroud rides out of the Alamo only to find that he’s too late when he gets home. Farms and homes alike have been burned by raiding parties, but not Mexican soldiers. Instead, it is a gang of Americans who have sided with the Mexicans in hopes of acquiring land. With a stigma attached to his name, Stroud goes about exacting his revenge.

Ever since watching Disney’s Davy Crockett episodes as a kid, I’ve been hooked on the Alamo. This film effort was one that took awhile to track down, but it was worth the wait. It’s on my Alamo rotation I watched every year during the siege — Feb. 23 through March 6 — as it unfolds.

‘Man’ is an interesting entry, mostly because it uses the Alamo as a jumping off point and not an end result. The opening 15 minutes or so depict the siege, a high-walled, claustrophobic fort under heavy bombardment. We meet Crockett, Travis and Bowie briefly as we learn that time is running out on the defenders. Certain death awaits. What the opening lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in tension and a no-holds barred feeling. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to be part of the siege from the Texan perspective. A very cool intro that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the movie.

Once John leaves the Alamo, we return to a pretty standard B-western. We’ve got six-shooters and cowboys who look more appropriate for the 1870’s than 1830’s, but it’s fun. Director Budd Boetticher was still a relative unknown as he would pair up with star Randolph Scott in the coming years for his most memorable movies. ‘Man’ is solid though. It clocks in at just 79 minutes and is always on the move. Some good action, an interesting, unique story and entertaining throughout. The potential of the story — a man leaves the Alamo, mostly against his will — certainly could have been more involved, more in-depth to explore the character, but what’s here is entertaining, streamlined fun.

Glenn Ford has always been an actor I welcome when I see him in a cast listing, but one I’ve never thought of as one of my favorites either. A good actor, but he doesn’t have many classic or close classics to his name. He does what he can here as supposedly cowardly John Stroud, but the story never lets him slow down and breathe. Stroud finds out what happened to his wife and son but never gets a chance to show any frustration. He’s just immediately on the road to revenge! Not a flashy part, but a good one.

Also look for Julie Adams, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills (he’d star in John Wayne’s The Alamo 7 years later), Victor Jory as the villain, and Neville Brand as one of his henchmen. Marc Cavell has a solid supporting part as Carlos, a young Mexican boy who worked with his father on the Stroud farm. Even keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver as one of the Alamo defenders.

Nothing too flashy here, but a western I’ve enjoyed with repeated viewings. Especially noteworthy for its Alamo opening, ‘Man’ also features some pretty cool stunts in the finale as a gang of murderers chases across the prairie after eight wagons full of women, children, and a big old safe of gold. Worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

The Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****