Classic Movie Review: Broken Lance

Broken Lance (1954)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk.
Written by: Richard Murphy, story by Philip Yordan.
Starring: Spencer Tracy (Matt Devereaux), Robert Wagner (Joe Devereaux), Jean Peters (Barbara), Richard Widmark (Ben Devereaux), Katy Jurado (Señora Devereaux), Hugh O'Brian (Mike Devereaux), Eduard Franz (Two Moons), Earl Holliman (Denny Devereaux), E.G. Marshall (Horace - The Governor), Carl Benton Reid (Clem Lawton), Philip Ober (Van Cleve), Robert Burton (Mac Andrews).

Some stories are so universal, you can do practically anything to them, and their inherent themes and charms still come through. Take Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954) as an example. The film is a remake of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 film House of Strangers. Except that House of Strangers was a black and white film noir with Edward G. Robinson in the lead role, and Broken Lance is a color, Cinemascope Western, with Spencer Tracy in the lead role. Yet, the same basic story exists in both films – and if you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recognize a lot of King Lear in these movies.

In Broken Lance, Tracy stars as Matt Devereaux, the son of Irish immigrants, who made his way West and has become a wealthy cattle baron. He has tried hard to instill hard work into his four sons – the first three from his first marriage, and the youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner) from his marriage to a Native woman (Katy Jurado). His three eldest sons resent the old man – he has always driven them hard, and paid them like any other cowhand on the ranch. He plans on leaving the ranch to his sons, but until then he rules with an iron fist. The eldest son Ben (Richard Widmark), is intelligent (his two younger brothers are dolts) and wants to see the ranch modernized, but the old man is pigheaded and refuses to budge. Joe has a more charitable view of his old man – probably because he came along later, when Matt was already rich, so his life was easier than Ben and his brothers.

Perhaps solely because of casting, Spencer Tracy is more sympathetic than Edward G. Robinson was in House of Strangers. While in House of Strangers, Robinson is more monstrous, and willfully commits criminal actions, and demands what he knows is too much from his sons, Tracy is more Lear-like – basically a stubborn fool who does not realize the damage his actions have caused to his family. It also helps to make Tracy more sympathetic that his eldest son is played by Richard Widmark – best known for playing snarling sociopaths. Although the movie gives him reasons, and Widmark plays the role well, he is still very clearly the villain of the piece. The film also changes the ending – set years after the main action of the movie – and is a little less for it. The fratricide in House of Strangers makes far more sense, than the rather random ending of Broken Lance.

Broken Lance is interesting in another way though – while not the first, it is certainly among the first wave of Westerns to address racism in a real way. One of the reasons why Matt cannot get out of his legal troubles, is because he is married to a Native woman – and as a result Joe is a “half breed”. The Governor, who Matt put there with his political contributions, tells Matt he would be willing to appoint a “sympathetic” judge, if you he ensures that Joe stays away from his daughter Barbara (Jean Peters). Later in the film, Widmark lashes out angrily at Matt saying “did you ever ask me if I want an Indian as a stepmother”. In Broken Lance, the most honorable characters are all natives – Katy Jurado was nominated for an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal as Matt’s loyal wife, Joe has a moral code he will not compromise, and Two Moons (Eduard Franz) becomes the hero of the film in the late stages. It is, of course, one of the ironies of old Hollywood films that even in a movie like Broken Lance, which decries racism, that none of the Native characters are actually played by Natives – still though, Broken Lance represents progress, a change in thinking in Western about the way Natives were portrayed.

Broken Lance is not quite a great film, although it is entertaining, well made and extremely well acted. It is far more interesting if you’ve seen House of Strangers and can compare and contrast the two films, and how Broken Lance is pretty much effortlessly able to transport a film noir story to the Western genre – keeping the darkness of the themes intact, even if it changes the specifics. Broken Lance is not quite great – but it is very good.

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