The one and only Spencer Tracy stars in Broken Lance (1954) as a fierce rancher who has raised his sons (played by Richard Widmark, Robert Wagner, Earl Holliman, and Hugh O’Brian) with a potent work ethic but little paternal affection. Before long, the brothers are at each other’s throats, with dramatic results for the whole family. Also starring Katy Jurado, Oscar®-nominated for her performance as Tracy’s outcast wife, and Jean Peters as the young woman who catches Wagner’s eye.
"…anybody that throws $10,000 in a spittoon makes me nervous."
Inspiration is an important element that drives the creative process. Whether someone is painting a canvas, writing a novel, or crunching out a screenplay, something provided that inspirational spark in the person's brain that propels them towards creating a work of art. Sometimes it's the work of others that can inspire us to create new and exciting material out of a story that has already been told. 1954's 'Broken Lance' starring screen legend Spencer Tracy, directed by Edward Dmytryk from a screenplay by Richard Murphey from a story by Philip Yordan takes elements of Shakespeare's "King Lear" and creates a searing drama about the intricacies and complications that arise from paternal legacy.
For the last three years, Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner) has rotted in prison toiling away crushing rocks and working in the hot sun. Now that he's finally out of prison, he can go about the rest of his life, but the bad blood between his three older brothers Denny (Earl Holliman), Mike (Hugh O'Brian), and the oldest and most bitter of them - Ben (Richard Widmark) has those in authority concerned about the family's future. The Devereaux brothers are all that remains of the legacy of Matthew Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) and their internal feud could tear apart the man's memory and the lasting impact the man had on the American west.
Matthew Devereaux was a cattleman who moved his wife and sons Ben, Mike, and Denny west into the wilds. He lost half his herd of cattle in the process, and he had to trench the first water wells, on top of making peace with the local Comanche tribes. When Deveraux's first wife died of disease, he married a Comanche woman the local town people took to calling Señora (Katy Jurado in an Oscar-nominated performance) so she would be perceived as a Mexican woman rather than as an Indian wife to a white man. Out of this union came Joe. Where Ben, Mike, and Denny fell away from their father's favor and became lax in their ambitions choosing to wait for an inheritance, Joe worked hard and wasn't afraid to stand up to their father when he saw the man was making a bad decision. Because Matthew saw some of himself in the boy, Joe quickly became his favorite.
After defending their water rights causes Matthew to be taken to court by a local mining outfit, the Devereaux family's way of life is put at risk. While Joe is ready and willing to do anything he can to ensure that his father is spared a jail sentence that could cause him his life, Joe's older brothers, especially Ben, are ready to pick over the corpse of their father's empire and take what's theirs. If the legacy of Matthew Devereaux is to survive, the brothers are going to have to face each other once and for all.
'Broken Lance' is a film that is entirely about history and legacy and how the past can scar a future. The film plays with these heavy themes without providing firm answers allowing the audience to decide who the real heroes and villains are. While the brothers Ben, Mike, and Denny are certainly spoiled and bratty, Matthew is hardly a saint either. Because of his perceptions of his children he only pays them the meager wage of $40 dollars a month and is surprised when Mike and Denny dare to steal a few head of cattle to rebrand and sell as their own. Caught in the middle is Joe. Not only is he loyal to his father, but he also sees the fallacy of his extreme ways while shunning the greedy antics of his brothers. His character is not only an outsider in the family hierarchy, but he's also a half-breed making his presence in "civilized society" a tense situation - especially when the young man falls in love with the daughter of the Governor.
One of the things I love and appreciate about 'Broken Lance' is how earnestly it deals with topical issues such as race relations, land rights, and inheritance entitlements. These are immensely tricky issues and there are no clear Black and White answers and the film deftly bounces between the issues allowing you to decide for yourself who is right and wrong in any given moment. While we're absolutely intended to side with Joe in this family drama, we're left to decide our loyalties to either Matthew or Ben and his younger siblings. It's hard to choose who is right when both men are wrong. It's one of those instances where a difficult conversation that would clarify matters is long overdue and the longer it takes to start, the less likely it will ever happen.
While Robert Wagner may be the primary character that the audience learns about the Devereaux family through, Spencer Tracy as Matthew is the undeniable star of this show. Tracy is fierce as Matthew and brings a strength to the role that would have been lacking if anyone else had taken on the role. Tracy, even when he's playing the warm-hearted softy, has always had a look in his eyes that if you were to catch the wrong side of would put fear in your heart. He's absolutely a man you never want to make angry. On the opposite side of this dramatic coin is Richard Widmark as Ben. Apparently Widmark only took the film in order to get out of his contract with Fox, but the results are still impressive. He's a shrewd character and Widmark makes Ben someone you hate, but at the same time you have little trouble empathizing with. Robert Wagner plays Joe well enough, but his character isn't a decisive individual. He's the man caught in the middle of a war that started before he was born. It's fun to see Wagner and Tracy play off each other - especially when you realize that just two years later the pair would play estranged brothers in 1956's 'The Mountain.'
'Broken Lance' is less of a western than it is a family drama. The beautiful frontier only serves as a backdrop for a compelling piece of filmmaking. With outstanding performances and smart storytelling, the film is never a dull moment. It's a movie that takes its time to setup characters and scenarios so that by the time the film reaches its climax you're thoroughly invested in Joe, Matthew, Ben and the rest of the Devereaux clan. You don't want tragedy to strike the family, but you can't help but feel like you're watching an ocean liner coasting towards an iceberg. If I have any issue with the film at all it is that the film feels like it takes the long way around at times and the second act courtroom drama element feel a little out of place. It works within the context of the story, but at the same time the material feels like it could have been covered in a more organic way than in a courtroom. At the end of the day, the film is a fantastic piece of work that is absolutely worth the watch. Drama and western fans alike should have a great time watching Spencer Tracy dominate this film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Broken Lance' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Twilight Time limited to 3000 copies and is pressed on a Region Free BD50 disc. Housed in a standard clear case, the disc opens directly to a static image main menu.
'Broken Lance' makes its Blu-ray debut in fine order with this beautiful 2.55:1 1080p transfer. As a film that was shot in Cinemascope, the transfer showcases both the high marks and lows the format had to offer. With fine film grain intact and apparent throughout, we get to enjoy some sweeping vistas and intricate production design that went into recreating the late 1800s. Because of the nature of the photography, close-ups of the characters are virtually nonexistent as the sweet spot for image clarity is in the middle ground and beyond. People who haven't seen the film before may be taken aback at how soft the image is, but by comparison to other home video formats this is a huge upgrade. I'd last seen this film over ten years ago in school and this was a pleasing upgrade over the previous muddy-looking presentation with artificially tweaked colors. The film, aside from a few moments, has a very purposeful drab and depressed color pallet and this transfer replicates the intended results perfectly. Primaries have just the right amount of pop to them but never become so vibrant as to dominate the screen. Black levels are rock solid and provide a wonderful sense of depth without bleeding into any terrible crush issues. One thing I'm very impressed with is how well this transfer handles the optical transitions. Compare to other Cinemascope releases like 'Journey To The Center of the Earth' or 'Hombre' and it's very apparent that some work went into mitigating the jarring clarity and color shifts that happen during these scene changes.
'Broken Lance' arrives with two audio tracks to choose from, a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix as we as a DTS-HD 2.0 mix. Each track has some plusses and minuses so which track someone chooses will just have to come down to personal preference. On one hand the 5.1 surround track offers a level of dimensionality, imaging and atmosphere the 2.0 track can't quite equal. On the other hand, the 2.0 mix sounds a bit more present and stronger especially during the film's quieter dialog-driven moments. Both tracks feature outstanding clarity and dialog is crisp and clear throughout without any distortion issues or age-related damage or hiss. Both tracks keep things to the relative midranges allowing the film's score by Leigh Harline to provide the deeper ominous tones that keep the lower registers engaged. Both tracks have fantastic balance and you shouldn't have to have a thumb on the volume button. If I were to choose one track over the other, I would have to pick the 5.1 surround mix, if for no other reason than that the outdoor vistas have a wonderful auditory life to them that the 2.0 mix doesn't quite capture as effectively.
Audio Commentary: Film historian Nick Redman sits down with Actor Earl Holliman who played Denny in the film. Even as just a bit player in the film, Earl Holliman offers a fountain of information about the film, working with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner as well as Richard Widmark. it's a fun track that is informative and having Redman on hand to ask probing questions really helps to keep the track moving in interesting directions without any long lulls in the conversation.
Trailers: (HD 2:39) (HD 2:29) Aside from about ten seconds, there is very little different from these two trailers, the differences are the blink and you'll miss them sort. Both showcase the movie well enough, but they also highlight the quality work that went into restoring the film to its current state.
At a swift 97 minutes, 'Broken Lance' packs in a lot of compelling family drama using some of the best actors in the business. Spencer Tracy is in his element here, and provides one of my favorite performances from the legendary actor. Twilight Time has done a fine job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a stellar A/V presentation, a fantastic audio commentary, and their usual offering of an isolated score track. Fans of this film and lovers of cinema classics should consider this one recommended.