Broken Lance

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BROKEN LANCE —–before Ben Cartwright and Victoria Barkley benevolently ruled their Old West spreads and spawn on TV, there were a number of less-happy cowherd kingdoms portrayed on the big screen, including the one in this solid, intelligent 1954 saga of a hardcase patriarch and his four restless sons. In 1941, novelist Jerome Weidman wrote “I’ll Never Go There Anymore”; his then-contemporary tale was adapted eight years later as House Of Strangers, starring Edward G. Robinson as an immigrant Italian businessman lording it over his clan in New York City. The ‘King Lear’-like template was done a third time in 1961 as The Big Show, using a German circus background. The most successful version was the second, this handsome western directed by Edward Dmytryk, popular at the box-office and an Oscar-winner for Philip Yordan in the Best Story category. *

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‘Matt Devereaux’ (Spencer Tracy) spent his life growing a huge cattle business. His first wife died; he worked their three sons harshly, while showing favor to his fourth and youngest ‘Joe’ (Robert Wagner), from second wife ‘Señora’ (Katy Jurado), an Indian. Resentment turns into rebellion from the older sons, and racial prejudice adds further pressure on both Matt and Joe. Temper control is in short supply all around, especially when the ‘half-breed’ Joe romances the governor’s daughter (Jean Peters), and legal trouble sees ownership of the ranch contested by the bitter eldest son ‘Ben’ (Richard Widmark). The other two, ‘Mike’ (Hugh O’Brian) and ‘Denny’ (Earl Holliman) side with Ben against the father and their half-caste half-brother.

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With that array of actors and a good script, it’s hard to go wrong, and the expansive Arizona locations make a Big Emotions backdrop for their psychological conflicts. Along with the Academy Award that went to the Story, Jurado was nominated as Supporting Actress. Wagner, 24 here, is not bad: he was improving as the studio pushed him. Widmark wanted out of his contract with 20th Century-Fox after 21 pictures over eight years, so he took reduced 4th-billing here as part of his escape. He’s strong as usual, and has some good exchanges with the powerhouse Tracy. Peters role is mostly decorative: her scenes with Wagner come off like perfunctory mush, even with the whiff of bigotry attached to their pairing. Though at 53 he wasn’t in the best condition, Tracy does a fair amount of vigorous riding: he’d played a good deal of polo, so knew his way around horses. All these guys look sleek in the saddle.

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Budgeted at $2,000,000, Cogerson has it landing at 24th place for that year, with a healthy gross of $10,900,000. Sturdy 50’s supporting cast: E.G. Marshall, Eduard Franz, Philip Ober, Carl Benton Reid, Robert Burton, Russell Simpson, King Donovan. Dramatic music score is the work of Leigh Harline.

That 50-foot fall into a lake—pinpoint, right next to boulders—that Widmark’s double (stuntman-acrobat Russ Saunders) performed was as painful as it looks—he messed up an arm pretty seriously.

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* Bitter old cowboy cusses with cursed kin would include Lionel Barrymore’s ‘Jackson McCanles’ of Duel In The Sun, Walter Huston’s ‘T.C. Jeffords’ in The Furies, Donald Crisp’s ‘Alec Waggoman’ of The Man From Laramie, and the death match between Burl Ives ‘Rufus Hannassey’ and Charles Bickford’s ‘Henry Terrill’ over The Big Country. Plus there was John Wayne’s unforgiving ‘Tom Dunson’ in Red River. Along with Widmark freeing himself from Fox’y clutches, Hugh O’Brian, 29 here, pointed his boots in a smart direction the following year, beginning six seasons and 226 episodes in The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp.

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The Oscar awarded to Philip Yordan for the Story (that category was discontinued in 1956) was a bit of a round robin. Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets) wrote the screenplay for this, but Yordan had done the earlier screenplay for House Of Strangers, or at least some of it, as that film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz then rewrote most of Yordan’s material. If there was anything more vindictive than turf wars between ranchers in the 19th Century it might be claim-jumping among screenwriters in the 20th.

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