Broken Lance

Still on a Richard Widmark roll. But to shift gears somewhat, I have decided to write about one of my favorite westerns. “Broken Lance (1954)” is a retelling of an earlier 20th Century Fox film, “House of Strangers (1949)”.  The story is transposed from a big city banking family to a western family of ranchers.  This is done with ease, because the story resonates as true for many dysfunctional families, regardless of the setting.  This was one of the first Widmark films that I remember seeing as a child, initiating my fandemonium.  It was on TVO’s double bill movie program called Saturday Night at the Movies, which is still going strong, decades later.  That evening’s theme was the Hollywood remake; thus House of Strangers was paired with Broken Lance.  The latter film is the best in my opinion, although both are good.  True confession time – I dusted off my DVD copy of House of Strangers to rewatch it, just for fun after watching Broken Lance.  I am such a movie geek.

Spencer Tracy plays the patriarch, Matt Devereaux.  He has 3 sons from his first marriage, and Widmark plays the eldest, Ben.  Tracy’s character’s first wife died when his sons were young.  He married again and had a fourth son, Joe (played by Robert Wagner).  His second wife is played by Katy Jurado.  Jean Peters plays Barbara, Joe’s firecracker of a sweetheart.  The acting is fabulous by all. It is a great dysfunctional family story. Even the villainous sons, Widmark in particular, evoke some sympathy. Matt Devereaux is a bully, and takes the law in his own hands. He lets his favorite son take responsibility and is shocked to learn that his other sons are not going to give up part of their inheritance to spare the consequences of their father’s ill advised actions.

What makes this film stand ahead of the pack is the attention it pays to character development and dead on family dynamics.  It beautifully illustrates how miserably Tracy’s character, Matt, treated his sons, especially the oldest 3.  To watch Widmark’s face as he reacts to his father’s hollering out for all to hear “Just brand them, don’t BBQ them” is to die, just a little  One sees numerous examples of Matt publicly humiliating his sons, belittling them, using a whip on them — they are grown men for crying out loud!  Yet he treats them like children; paying them like ranch hands, yet expecting them to behave differently, as if they have a vested interest in the business.  “What’s mine is yours” says Matt Devereaux.  Yah, sure not til I’m dead, is the subtext.  He has the nerve to tell them that if they don’t like it they could leave. Really?  After he failed to educate them as children in order to put them to work on the ranch.  Leave and do what, start their own ranch?  That’s easier said than done.  Especially when your offspring only expected to be treated with respect due any other adult.  He used his sons poorly and refused to advance them to partners in the business until it was forced upon him due to his legal difficulties.  Matt Devereaux is an insufferable know-it-all and his own worst enemy.  He is constantly ignoring the sound advice of his son Ben on business and legal matters and he is oblivious to the depth of prejudice against his aboriginal second wife and favorite youngest son.  So when Matt’s know-it-all attitude lands him in hot water with the law, and he is surprised by the lack of support from his “friend” the govenor (Jean Peter’s character’s father); the only son willing to take the rap on his behalf is his favorite, Joe, the goody-goody.  The repercussions of this decision are played out to a great climax, which I shall not give away.

This movie is beautifully filmed in Cinemascope.  The story is richly layered with family dysfunction, social predjudice and the added treat of rich character development.  It gives Widmark a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of  his best work.  So few actors could have resisted being type-cast as a heavy. He managed to do so with his sympathetic portrayal of antagonists, such as in this film. His scenes with Spencer Tracey are phenomenal.  They are head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. That is saying something because Katy Jurado won a supporting Oscar for this role. Robert Wagner and Jean Peters also turn out fine performances.  Sure Widmark is billed 4th and deserved 2nd, but that is an understandable business decision on Fox’s part.  They would naturally promote the actors with remaining contracts. This was Widmark’s last film for Fox. He declined to renew his contract, much to the chagrin of the studio executives. Below is a A&E Biography episode about Widmark, for those that are curious.
Broken Lance is Widmark’s first of 3 western films with director Edward Dmytryk (The other 2 are Warlock and Alvarez Kelly, both excellent as well).  Dmytryk was one of the original so-called “Hollywood Ten” .  He was imprisoned for months after he initially refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a congressional committee that used cruel tactics in order to expose and destroy what it saw as Communist influence in Hollywood.  He eventually named names and the fact that he insited that he had done the right thing, put a shadow over his career similar to the one Elia Kazan fell under.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. deljoy
    May 02, 2012 @ 06:26:04

    Ann, you summed it up perfectly, this film oozes class throughout, storyline, cast, locations and music score. One of those I can re-visit anytime. Thanks, Derek.


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