When 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 /****