"Broken Trail," which aired on AMC in two installments, is a revisionist and highly moral Western set in 1898—eight years after the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were no more frontiers left in America. That explains why the heroes encounter fly fishermen as they drive a herd of horses from Oregon to Sheridan, Wyoming, taking the Oregon Trail in reverse. It doesn't explain why, with no unsettled or unowned land to speak of, they didn't encounter more strangers asking, "Hey, what're you doin' on my property?" For the most part, though, this Western feels real, and the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous.
Filmed in Calgary, Canada, this mini-series offers big-screen production values and the team of Robert Duvall ("Lonesome Dove") and Thomas Hayden Church ("Sideways"). As sidekicks, they're both believable and engaging. But I've always felt that the benchmark for TV Western mini-series was James Michener's "Centennial" and Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," and while you couldn't get enough of those two, this ambitious film feels as if it could have benefited from heavier editing. The pace is "Brokeback Mountain" slow at times, especially in the first half, with director Walter Hill unapologetically offering lingering shots of the cowboys staring up at the stars and such. Though it's solid Western entertainment, it stops just shy of having the same dramatic power as the best of the best.
In terms of the narrative structure, pacing, and tone, "Broken Trail" comes closer to "Lonesome Dove." Duvall plays Prentice "Print" Ritter, an old-school cowboy who informs his sullen and apparently erstwhile nephew, Tom Harte (Church), that Harte's mom had died and left her estate to her brother, not her son. The implication is that Harte is a bad egg, but he's duly employed branding cattle for another rancher, and nothing he does during this 184-minute journey brands him as a rogue. It's just one of those things we're not supposed to question.
For those accustomed to watching Church in wry roles, like "George of the Jungle" or "Sideways," it'll be a surprise to see how taciturn he is in this film, holding his jaw set and speaking a little like Heath Ledger did in "Brokeback Mountain." There are sheep in this tale too, but the only thing that happens is that one of them gets eaten. There's also love, but only the Platonic and noble kind.
Print: "The habits and ambitions of women are more a mystery to me than Egyptian hieroglyphics."
Tom: "I'll stick to horses."
Like "Lonesome Dove," this is a "trail" movie that gets quickly under way. Shortly after we're introduced to the pair, Duvall proposes that they take the money from Mom's estate and buy horses to drive across country to sell to the British army. But really, it seems he's looking for an excuse to re-connect with his nephew, and that's one main feature that elevates this Western. The other is that it features five Chinese girls who have been bought and paid for and were heading for a mining camp before fate put their wagon right smack in the middle of the cowboys' herd.
What's perhaps most surprising about "Broken Trail" is that for a film which begins with a shot of Chinese girls being stripped down (yes, breasts are shown) and inspected by slavers, the film really takes the high moral road the rest of the way. Print and Tom are crusadingly decent men—knights on horseback who rescue not one maiden but five. And they're moral scourges, punishing those who would abuse the girls and even ridding the West of Smallpox Bob, who's been spreading disease. No men who roamed the West were probably this good or this flawless, but of course the Western is America's great myth, and as such, it's the carrier of the morals that Americans hold near and dear to their hearts. There are good guys and bad guys, and it's as simple as that—so simple that in the iconic Westerns you could tell at a glance who were the good guys and who were the bad by the color of their hats or horses.
This Western comes with a liberal dose of realism, so you'll see things that you don't see in other movie yarns, like a man urinating in the bushes, pulling ticks off a companion, or stitching up someone's forehead with a curved buckskin needle. It's also infused with plenty of colorful characters with colorful names like Big Ears, Big Rump Kate, Fox-Hide Brine, or Captain Billy Fender. But the road that this group traveled could have had a few more twists and turns in it to add interest. Sometimes, things seem to resolve themselves too easily or too directly, with no real repercussions, obstacles, or complications until a an ex-con and his gang come into the picture.
The plot itself is simple. Print and Tom run across a man in a wagon who's bringing the Chinese girls to Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer), the rough madam of a mining camp whorehouse. In the go-figure department, this man drugs them and scoots with some of their best horses and just one of the girls, whom he's "spoiled." But the heroes get after him and dispense frontier justice, leaving them as custodians of the girls. At times, it seems as if Hill couldn't decide how much time to spend on the cross-cultural character encounter and how much to stay "on story." So it becomes a double "trail" film: get the horses to the buyers, and get the girls to a safe place, with plenty of chatty moments in which we learn about the characters' pasts—especially after another prostitute (Greta Scacchi) joins their group for her own safety.
Video: With so much breathtaking scenery you'd hope for a widescreen presentation (1.78:1) and a disc mastered in High Definition, and it's here. The colors are fully saturated, and there's very little grain. The black level might have been stronger in some scenes, but overall it's a very good picture.
Audio: Audio too is a surprise, with a robust English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and subtitles in English (CC). The tonal quality is both rich and mellow at the same time, if that makes any sense.
Extras: Not counting a sneak peak for AMC's "Hustle," there's really just one extra: an AMC promo feature titled "'Broken Trail': The Making of a Legendary Western." In it, we see the writer, director, and stars talking about the film and filming process, and learn that the stories were cobbled together based on a number of true stories from the Old West. And yes, there really was a fellow like Smallpox Bob.
Bottom Line: There's action in "Broken Trail" and some moments that will make you wince, but by and large, it's a pretty low-key film which delivers some pretty solid entertainment for Western lovers. It's a curious combination of realism and romantic idealism, but somehow it works.