Philip Yordan won an Oscar for the idea of turning his earlier King Lear-ish script for House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949) into a western; but perhaps the more interesting prize that Broken Lance garnered came from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose members voted it “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”—a category the organization has since (regrettably) dropped. Presumably the basis for its winning this Golden Globe is the film’s consideration of an (idealized) interracial, inter-ethnic marriage (between a white Irish American and a Commanche Native American) and the subsequent, however conflicted blended and interracial family—this, two years prior to John Ford’s The Searchers and George Stevens’s Giant (both 1956). This gives the film undeniable social import.
It needs it. Wedded to a flashbacking structure to emphasize how past determines present, the contrived narrative tells a whole lot of story, that is to say, too much story. But it, too, is of interest—political interest.
When it kills his cattle by polluting with toxic waste the streams from which they drink, rancher Matt Devereaux destroys a government-backed copper mining operation. The company involved retaliates by suing Devereaux, who asks the governor to intercede (with corruption!) on his behalf; Devereaux presumes his own access to and influence over this man, whom he helped into office, but who refuses him—not out of integrity but as retaliation against Devereaux for what he regards as Devereaux’s “pollution” of white America: widower Devereaux’s interracial second marriage and its offspring, son Joe, who—horrors!—is romantically involved with the governor’s daughter. Similarly, Devereaux’s three sons from his first marriage consider their brother a “half-breed”; they have long chafed under the yoke of their tyrannical father’s favoritism and his tenderness toward their peaceable stepmother. Matt is compelled to settle the lawsuit and have one of his sons serve for him a three-year prison term at hard labor. Only Joe volunteers. (Filial love is his principal motive, but there may also be, perhaps unconscious, a gnawing element of guilt contributing to Joe’s self-sacrifice. With Robert Wagner playing Joe, it is impossible to decipher complex motivation.) Released, Joe discovers his father, dead, on the ground, felled by a heart attack. (This is where the film begins.) Matt’s other sons in effect killed him, flashbacks relate, by their determination to sell off his land. (Near the end of the film, with Matt attempting to prevent his sons from doing this, the image of Matt on horseback, his eerily trotting horse now carrying his corpse, is the starkest, most powerful shot in the director’s—Hollywood Ten turncoat Edward Dmytryk’s—œuvre.) Joe discovers his mother gone and the ranch, abandoned, in ruins. (There is an echo here of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, 1940.) Inside the house, a high-hung portrait of Matt Devereaux ironically reflects on the outcome of all his wealth and power: a touch of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Joe sets out for revenge against his brothers until his mother, at Matt’s burial, pleads for an end to violence.
Proceeding from Richard Murphy’s ambitious script, the director does his best to interrelate various forms of “pollution,” including influence-peddling, political corruption, and Matt’s tyranny as father to the sons from his first marriage: a corruption of paternal love and responsibility. Still, it is hard to see Richard Widmark’s Ben Devereaux as much more than a cardboard villain. It is painful to watch so gifted an actor as Widmark in so plot-driven a role. By way of compensation, Spencer Tracy is sturdy and even mildly intriguing as Matt, and 30-year-old Katy Jurado, dignified and humane, is magnificent as “Señora,” Joe’s mother and the love of Matt’s life.
Of course, Jurado was also wonderful in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), the sociopolitically-conscious western whose popularity paved the way for Broken Lance. But the “classic” chiseled shots that High Noon comprises yield here to a visually looser presentation, one, regrettably, more scenic than expressive. While certain shots provide expressive punctuation, for the most part this film is visually dull, visually empty. Except for Jurado’s contribution, one needs to see the film only once.
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