There are a lot of ten-gallon hats, horses, cowboys, Indians, guns and rousing orchestral melodies in Edward Dmytryk's Broken Lance, but otherwise, it doesn't feel much like a typical western. It's a western that feels closer in spirit to the primetime soap operas of the 1980s than to something like The Searchers, High Noon or Rio Bravo; a film where the most dramatic moments tend to take place around the family dinner table and where business deals impact people's lives every bit as much as tense shootouts.
The film tells the story of the the conflicted Devereaux clan, headed by steely patriarch Matt (Spencer Tracy, Inherit the Wind). The gruff old rancher has tried to instill his four sons with a strong work ethic, but his son Joe (Robert Wagner, A Kiss Before Dying) – his child by his Native American wife “Senora” (Katy Jurado, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) – is the only one who seems to have any real desire to work hard and make something of himself. Ben (Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death), Mike (Hugh O'Brian, The Shootist) and Denny (Earl Holliman, Police Woman) – products of his Matt's marriage – tend to spend more time complaining about the fact that their father doesn't pay them any better than he pays the other ranch hands.
Tracy's snarling performance is the sort of commanding turn that makes the work almost everyone else is doing look passive and insignificant, and the blustery performance serves the character well: While Ben, Mike and Denny could justifiably be accused of being lazy ingrates, you also understand a certain measure of their resentfulness. Matt is a hard, emotionally distant man, and you get the sense that he was never the sort to sing his kids lullabies or offer a few words of much-needed encouragement. He's bewildered by the way most of his children have turned out, but doesn't seem to recognize the role he's played.
Broken Lance is one of several 1950s westerns that began to hesitantly explore themes of racial bias in the old west, serving up a surprisingly thoughtful subplot about the assorted forms of bigotry – subtle and overt – that Senora faces (for starters, she's required to use a fake Mexican name, as the hatred Mexicans face tends to be a little milder than the hatred Indians face). Even some of Matt's own children feel resentful about the fact that their father has married outside his own race. “You didn't ask us how we felt about it!” Ben snarls bitterly. The extreme prejudice of the old west extends to the legal system: Matt can't even will his property to his wife, because it's illegal for a Native American to own land.
While the film is fairly thoughtful on these matters considering the era in which it was made (filmmakers of the 1950s may have been too timid to address the racial tensions of the era they were living in, but some of them felt it was time to start addressing the racial injustices of the 19th century), such themes ultimately take a backseat to more routine family drama material (climaxing with a great big shootout that feels like the movie's one big concession to the conventions of the genre).
Tracy's performance is the most immediately compelling one, but Jurado brings a melancholy grace to her work that proves quietly affecting (Jurado earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts). While we can debate the wisdom of casting Robert Wagner as a half-Native American man, he brings precisely the right measure of earnest decency to the part. Widmark turns in yet another of his memorably complicated villains, effectively demonstrating that his endless venom is rooted in more than mere ugliness.
Dmytryk – one of the more prominent members of “the Hollywood Ten” - was one of those hard-working directors who churned out new movies at a fairly remarkable pace (there were times when he delivered two or three in a single year), but his work is typically a cut above that of your average Hollywood journeyman. Broken Lance doesn't quite reach the power of the director's very best films (Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire and The Caine Mutiny among them), but it's a compelling, thoughtful, handsome western that makes tremendous use of the vast Cinemascope format. Plus, it reminds you of why they used to call these things “horse operas."
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 1954