Friday, June 23, 2006

'Broken Trail', a Tale of Roping in Cattle and Rounding Up Girls

The New York Times
Published: June 23, 2006

"BROKEN TRAIL" is a western that begins in the Far East.

In a dark, dank and crowded cellar, young Chinese women are rounded up and sold to an American intent on transporting them to the frontier to serve as prostitutes — a 19th-century chattel drive.

Somewhere near the point where East meets West, five of them end up in the custody of two flinty cowboys who are taking a herd of wild horses across the wilderness to Wyoming. It's a majestic, lawless landscape that sets men free and immures women, and that clash is the crux of the two-part movie on AMC starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church that begins on Sunday.

Railroads forever changed the Wild West, and "Lonesome Dove," the 1989 mini-series based on Larry McMurtry's best-selling novel and that starred Mr. Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, forever changed the television western; every cowboy drama since has been held up against "Lonesome Dove" and fallen a little short. Only "Deadwood," on HBO, has set its own standard as an anti-western where almost all the conventions of the genre are turned upside down.

"Broken Trail," which has Mr. Duvall once again in the role of a crusty, worn-out cowboy, here called Print Ritter, is much more in the debt of "Lonesome Dove," probably a little too much, since it too cannot live up to that legendary epic. But this AMC film — which was directed by Walter Hill, whose work includes "The Long Riders," "Geronimo: An American Legend" and the pilot of "Deadwood" — has a subtle charm of its own.

The heart of the story is the renewed bond — forged in death, dirt and an unspoken code of honor — between Uncle Print and his estranged nephew, Tom Harte (Mr. Church), who reunite to transport and sell the horses. Greta Scacchi, who plays Nola, a battered prostitute on the run, forms an attachment to Print, but the film's real love story is the one between Print and the Chinese girls he grudgingly takes in, and feels bound to protect. "We didn't go looking to save no Orientals and a broken-nosed whore," Print says to Tom. "But sometimes you got to roll with what's thrown at you."

The people who imported the girls and want a return on their investment are not as fatalistic. As inevitable as sunrise, whiskey and horseflies, there comes a showdown between decent, chivalrous men and the bad and brutal.

Mr. Duvall has played this kind of character before, most recently in Kevin Costner's 2003 movie "Open Range." But with barks, squints and shakings of his head, he always squeezes a few new tics into the role. "Broken Trail" is not as well written or compelling as "Lonesome Dove," but Mr. Duvall brings an earthy believability to even the most plodding lines ("Never use money to measure wealth, son," he says to Tom).

Mr. Church ("Sideways") seems at first an odd choice for the role of the strong, silent cowhand; there is something comical about his jutting ears and the goofy planes of his face. But the actor quickly takes on the aspect of a simple, somewhat passive man who can be roused to icily efficient vengeance — with a rope, his fists or a rifle — when wronged.

The camera lingers on the horses galloping unharnessed through rivers and beneath snow-topped mountain ranges. (The film was shot in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada, the same location as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Unforgiven.") The film contrasts their easy freedom with the Chinese girls' fearful confinement in a mangy, horse-drawn wagon. They are virgins selected because deflowerment fetches a higher price. They speak no English, and have no idea why they were sold by their families. The youngest one has bound feet and can barely walk. The eldest tells the others they were sold to be servants. Instead, they discover that rape is a far more likely chore.

Rescue arrives when their captor, a drunken horse thief hired to bring the women to the mining town of Cariboo, Idaho, tries to rob Print and Tom and ends up dead, leaving his cargo unclaimed and terrified. The men have no choice but to bring the women along, shadowed by the evil men who want revenge and a crack at them.

A generation ago, back in the days of "Rawhide" and "The High Chaparral," westerns were so plentiful on television that it was easy to be picky. These days they are more like Yiddish theater, a fading tradition that relies on good will and preservationists to survive. AMC, like TNT, the cable network that put "Monte Walsh" on the air in 2003, is doing its part to keep the western alive. "Broken Trail" may not be great, but it's good enough.

Broken Trail

AMC, Sunday and Monday at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.

Robert Duvall, Stanley M. Brooks and Rob Carliner, executive producers; Chad J. Oakes and Mike Frislev, producers; Walter Hill, director; Alan Geoffrion, screenwriter. Produced by Mr. Duvall's Butchers Run Films and Once Upon a Time Films, in association with Sony Pictures Television.

WITH: Robert Duvall (Print Ritter), Thomas Haden Church (Tom Harte), Greta Scacchi (Nola Johns), Rusty Schwimmer (Kate Becker), Olivia Cheng (Ye Fung), Gwendoline Yeo (Sun Foy), Caroline Chan (Mai Ling), Jadyn Wong (Ghee Moon), Valerie Tian (Ging Wa), Scott Cooper (Henry Gilpin), James Russo (Capt. Billy Fender), Donald Fong (Lung Hay) and Chris Mulkey (Ed Bywater).

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