To say the term "TV movie" carries a stigma is an understatement. That's why it's not just refreshing, but revelatory when a mini-series like 'Broken Trail' comes along. As with 'Lonesome Dove' before it, this is not just an example of how terrific the form can be when done passionately, it's an excellent Western in its own right. Literate, humane, handsomely mounted, and acted with fire and wit, 'Broken Trail' is simply a terrific piece of celluloid, regardless of the medium.
The story, which though fictionalized, is based loosely on real events, recounts a shameful (and oft-forgotten) period of American Western history when Chinese-Americans were treated little better than cattle. Set in 1897, Prentice Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Hayden Church) agree to herd three hundred horses across a particularly bitter stretch of land between Oregon and Wyoming. Coming across a viscous slave trader (Chris Mulkey), they are assigned the role of reluctant guardians to five abused and abandoned Chinese girls. Ritter and Harte's attempts to care and create safe passage for them are complicated by a series of run-ins with a variety of characters, as well as their duty to simultaneously deliver the horses.
The first mini-series produced for the AMC network, 'Broken Trail' was directed by Walter Hill, and it's his finest work in years. Though he's often toiled in the garden of soulless and commercial Hollywood product, here Hill, along with the excellent Duvall and Church, strike just the right balance between the poignant and insightful human aspects of the story and the more expected Western conventions. Though ostensibly not an action piece, 'Broken Trail' delivers the "mismatched buddies on a Western road trip" cliches we expect, the gunplay, a good villain, and some impressive setpieces, yet never forgets it is a character-based drama with moral imperative.
Hill and screenwriter Alan Geoffrion also ensure that 'Broken Trail' rings of authenticity (or at least as much authenticity as a revisionist Western can allow) with fine, nuanced dialogue and subtle performances. Duvall is particularly effective at conveying the gravity and essential dignity of Ritter, both in his ethical treatment of the Asian girls (almost unheard of in 1897 America) and in his sparring with Harte. Church is also terrific in balancing the character's seeming incongruity of animosity and affection for Ritter. In a surprising choice for what could have been a stereotypical villain, Mulkey is quite terrifying in his coldness and sheer brutality (the film, though flush with splashes of violence, is not gratuitous), as is his lead henchman, played by a very effective James Russo.
'Broken Trail' is ultimately just a very fine film, regardless of its genre. The story is simple but well told, and the production values far exceed what we've come to expect (if unfairly) from a "TV movie." Though running over three hours, 'Broken Trail' feels half as long, and if there are perhaps a few meandering moments, I was never less than riveted. Thanks to the fine direction of Hill, and the always-terrific Duvall and Church, 'Broken Trail' lives up to its Emmy-winning reputation as one of the great Westerns.
Sony presents 'Broken Trail' in 1.78:1 widescreen and 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. It's easily one of the better TV-on-high-def presentations I've seen yet, and a fine transfer in its own right.
"Made for TV" often carries poor expectations in terms of quality, but 'Broken Trail' bucks most of those preconceived expectations. The film is awash in bold, vibrant colors, particularly in some of the early herding scenes, which have a wonderfully lush and natural palette of oranges and greens. The image is always nice and stable, with excellent fleshtones. The transfer also excels with its deep blacks and sharp contrast, plus plenty of detail. There is some softness throughout, but it's partly a result of the film's use of soft-focus photography and doesn't really distract. My only disappointment was with some obvious noise in many scenes, especially static shots of vast landscapes etc., which sometimes appear inconsistent. Otherwise, 'Broken Trail' is what a TV-on-high-def presentation should look like.
Offered in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit), I can't say that 'Broken Trail' sounds as good as it looks, but this is a perfectly fine soundtrack that delivers what it needs to.
This is a well-recorded mix, particularly dialogue. For a film shot on so many practical locations, the mix of live recorded sound and dubbed dialogue sounds natural and pleasing. The score is nicely blended, and there a healthy spark to dynamic range, which is clean and clear. Low bass is fine for the demands of the track.
Unfortunately, surround integration is weak. There is little rear activity save for the sporadic discrete effect. The score is likewise directed largely to the fronts. For a film as expansive and, at times, epic, as this, it's just a disappointment that 'Broken Trail' never fully exploits its visuals and really envelopes you. It's still a polished mix, but it doesn't match the video.
Matching the previous DVD release, the Blu-ray of 'Broken Trail' features only a single supplemental feature. (Presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only, optional English and French subtitles are provided.)
'Broken Trail' is arguably the best Western made for television this side of 'Lonesome Dove.' It's beautifully acted, wonderfully photographed, and tells of a forgotten moment in U.S. history that deserves to be remembered. This Blu-ray is lacking in bells and whistles, but delivers very fine video and audio. 'Broken Trail' is well worth a purchase for fans, it's also a must-rent, even if you don't think you like Westerns.