Broken Lance: Spencer Tracy is majestic as ‘King Lear’ of the West in this family saga dealing with pride, racism and sibling rivalry

Broken Lance (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Spencer TracyRobert WagnerJean PetersRichard Widmark, and Katy Jurado, is a family saga set in the old-West that bears a strong resemblance to Shakespeare’s Tragedy, King Lear.

Spencer Tracy is perhaps the greatest naturalistic actor from Hollywood’s golden age.  Tracy, who was nominated nine times, was the first actor (Tom Hanks being the other) to win two consecutive Academy Awards. But he is not an actor one usually associate with Westerns. Except for some films like “Northwest Passage” and “Sea of Grass,” which could be considered quasi-Westerns, Tracy, like his friend and fellow New York stage actor Humphrey Bogart, was uncomfortable in the saddle (at least in front of the camera, I believe he was a good Polo player in real life) and pretty much stayed away from the Western genre. “Broken Lance (1954)” is the only pure Western that Tracy ever made; and here too it it must be said that the film is more of a family drama rather than a straight up shoot’em up Western. I don’t think Tracy would ever be truly convincing as a Western action hero. He is more comfortable at fighting verbal and intellectual duels with the likes of Katherine Hepburn than with the grueling physical stuff that action films require; though I must say that Tracy was pretty convincing as a war-vet standing up to a bunch of thugs (played by macho stars like Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin) in John Sturges’ modern Noir Western “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Tracy was 54 when he acted in “Broken Lance,” but years of heavy drinking made him look much older than he was. And, appropriate to his age and withered look, he plays a powerful patriarch who is a father of four grown-up men.

The film is set in the 1880s, Arizona, and Tracy is Matt Devereaux, a ranch owner who singlehandedly built an enormous ranch and mining empire. He is an Irishman who came to the southwest with nothing, just his wife and three sons, Ben, Mike, and Denny (played as adults by Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian, and Earl Holliman respectively). After his wife died, Matt married a Comanche woman (Katy Jurado), who tries to pass for a Mexican, and who is referred to as ‘Senora Devereaux’ by the townsfolk, mainly out of respect to Matt. They have a son, Joe (Robert Wagner), who, being biracial, is treated prejudicially by his three Caucasian half-brothers and the townsfolk. But Joe is Matt’s favorite son, mainly because Joe, who was born after Matt has established his empire and never had to face his father’s wrath, could stand up to his father and gently reason with him; Matt’s never shown fatherly affection to his three older sons because he was fully occupied with building his empire and he rode them hard to work beside him in achieving his goal. Matt is a bullheaded autocrat who cracks his bullwhip at anyone who dare to stand against him, even his sons. Naturally, the sons hate him and they are biding their time to move against him. The eldest son, Ben, is intelligent and a handworker; he worked side by side his father in building his empire, but he has grown up resenting his father because the father treats him and pays him like a ranch hand; the other two sons are ineffectual idiots who are scared to death of their father.

One day, Matt discovers that his sons Mike and Denny are part of a gang of rustlers who are stealing cattle from him. Matt strikes Mike when he tries to justify the rustling by complaining about his father’s low wages. Ben also demands higher wages and sides with his two rebellious brothers, and only Joe remains loyal to his father. As punishment, Matt banishes Mike and Denny, giving them only a few stolen cattle to support themselves. Days later, Matt is upset to find that Joe has brought home Mike and Denny, and that his exiled sons are mingling with his dinner guests. The guests include the governor (E.G. Marshal) and his young daughter Barbara (Jean Peters), with whom Joe is smitten. Soon after discovering that his cattle are dying, Matt learns that his herd has been poisoned by waste in the river coming from the Associated Western Copper Mine. Matt and his sons demand that the owner of the mine, McAndrews, stop polluting the river, and when the miner rejects their demand, Matt vows to get an injunction against him. Before leaving the mine, Matt punches McAndrews and destroys the mining company’s refinery. The court issues a warrant to arrest whoever was responsible for the attack. Joe, who has no interest in owning or running the ranch empire, loves his father and would do anything for him. To spare his father the agony and humiliation of a jail term, Joe claims responsibility for the attack and is sentenced to three years in prison.

The loss of his favorite son, along with the shame he suffers when Ben, Mike and Denny revolts against him in Joe’s absence, causes Matt to have a stroke. After making a partial recovery, Matt tries to get Joe out of prison by asking Ben to sacrifice his share of the ranch, but Ben refuses. Matt dies in his attempt to stop Ben from selling out his ranch to an Oil company . Joe is permitted to leave prison to attend his father’s funeral, during which he formally severs his ties with his brothers and proclaims a blood feud. Having served his prison sentence, Joe returns to the ranch. The Senora, his mother, who went to live with her people after Matt’s death, persuades him to forget revenge and leave the country. Joe takes her advice, but Ben, fearing Joe’s revenge for indirectly causing their father’s death, ambushes and tries to kill Joe. The two half-brothers fight until “Two Moons,” the Comanche ranch foreman, saves Joe’s life by shooting Ben dead before he can shoot an unarmed Joe. Time passes, and Joe and Barbara, now married, visit Matt’s grave. There, Joe sees the down-turned lance, the Indian symbol for a blood feud, and breaks it in half, thus ending the fight forever. 

Writer, Richard Murphy’s screenplay for the film was officially based on Philip Yordan’s screenplay for the 1949 Twentieth Century-Fox film “House of Strangers,” which was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and starred Edward G. Robinson, Richard Conte and Susan Hayward. Yordan’s screenplay, in turn, was based on Jerome Weidman’s 1941 novel “I’ll Never Go There Any More.” But, Yordan was given sole screen credit for the story of this film and he even won an Oscar in the ‘Best Story’ category, Weird!. That’s the only weird thing about this film, everything else is very straightforward and classical- starting with the film’s biblical and Shakespearean influences. From the above synopsis, it’s very clear that this western strongly recalls the story of “Joseph and his brothers” in Genesis. The hero being named Joe, he being his father’s pet, and his jealous brothers selling him out – all seems to have been taken from the biblical tale. The story also resembles Shakespeare’s great tragedy, “King Lear,” with daughters becoming sons- the powerful patriarch’s foolishness in dividing his empire leading to much tragedy for himself and his family. But a big problem with this film is that it does not have the epic sweep that those two classical tales had. This film clocks in at 96 minutes, which is just not enough to do justice to the myriad of themes and characters that the film encompasses. The themes of prejudice, racism, family feud, sibling rivalry, lost sons, generational conflict, the death of the old free west and the birth of the new corporate West are touched upon in various capacities in the film but never satisfyingly. I would have liked to know more about Matt’s relationship with the Comanche. What is his fascination with wolves (did this plot element inspire “Dances with Wolves”?); did he marry Senora out of love or purely business purposes, so that Comanche will help him in building his empire; how did ‘Two Moons’ become the Ranch foreman?, I would have loved to see Matt interacting with the tribesmen and how they treat each other; does Matt really love Joe more than his other sons, or he just baiting his older Caucasian sons by showering more love on his biracial son; or by favoring Joe over the others is he is keeping his Comanche relatives happy; how was the formative years of the boys; and how did their brotherly relationship evolve; and how much does the older brothers hate Joe; and how did Joe deal with his two brothers after Ben’s death; and how did he manage to overcome the governor’s prejudices and marry his daughter?. I would say that all these most interesting bits in the story are never explored through the film. The film needed to be a 3 hr. plus epic in the mold of “Gone with the Wind,” “Giant” or even “Red River” (which it closely resembles in the story of an autocratic frontier patriarch’s decline after his sons rebel against his authority) to fully explore the very rich subject matter. I don’t know why the great producer and Fox Studio head, Daryl F. Zanuck, dropped the ball on this one.

Still, the film manages to make a powerful impact on the audience because of three main factors- one: despite the screenplay being more a collection of snapshots from an epic story, it is structured well and there are some powerfully written and performed scenes that manages to connect very strongly with the audience; two: the actors, mainly the quartet of Tracy, Widmark, Wagner and Jurado are in fine form and they convey much more of their characters than what’s actually written; and three: the film is state of the art for its time; being the first of the Westerns to be shot in Cinemascope with stereophonic sound; director Edward Dmytryk and the great cinematographer Joe Macdonald puts the widescreen to perfect use in capturing the Western landscape and architecture; it’s anyway a great format to shoot scenes involving horses. We see the screenplay and the widescreen lensing working very well in tandem right from the opening images of the film. We see Joe coming put of prison and immediately being dwarfed by the huge landscape; he being not in control of his destiny is immediately established when he is lead away by some lawmen into the Governor’s office; here, the screenplay builds suspense as to whether or not Joe is the black sheep of the family. At Governor’s office, Joe is once again dwarfed by the massive portrait of his father hanging on the wall; he is forever destined to live under his father’s shadow. This is the first time we see Tracy’s Matt- as an imposing giant who literally built the state. This is Matt at his most powerful in the movie; because from this point on what we will see is the gradual decline of this self-made king- most of it brought about (like any great Shakespearean tragic hero) by his own fallibility. And his decline coincides with the transformation of the lawless Wild West of the pioneers into law-abiding states taken over by business-minded corporations. We see that the three older sons are now well-dressed, bona fide businessmen, having moved into town and opened offices there. They make a business proposal to their half-breed half-brother to get rid of him. Since Joe still think with his heart, he rejects their proposal, fueling suspicion in the minds of the brothers, especially Ben, regarding his intentions. Joe lands up at the family’s old ranch which is now dilapidated. This is the second time we see Matt’s portrait – of him sitting majestically on a horse; and the film cuts to a flashback to a time when Matt was still the king of his realm.

If there was any actor who can pull of an American Lear, then it’s Tracy. His gives his usual effortless, naturalistic performance of a very unlikeable patriarch who refuses to change with times and pay the price for it. He refuse to trust his elder son, Ben, who is more than capable of running the ranch and taking the family into the new age – thereby incurring his resentment and wrath that destroys the family – and showering love on an inept Joe, who is goodhearted but is too soft and unfit to be a businessman. The scheming Ben easily manages to guilt trip Joe into taking the fall for their father, thereby destroying Matt and grabbing the reins of the empire. Tracy has three brilliant scenes in the film that makes a lasting impact on the viewer. First is when he finds out that his friend, the governor, whom he picked out of nowhere and made the head of a state, is a racist, who opposes the romance between his daughter and the half-breed Joe. Tracy’s performance is a mix of shock and disgust; he has trouble articulating himself as he is unable to finish the sentences he starts; the words are all cut up; it’s a classic Tracy performance, if it was any other actor he would have just concentrated on delivering a perfect lengthy monologue, but Tracy hardly say the words, he conveys it through his body language, the nervous pacing, the banging on the table etc. ; it’s amazing to watch. The second scene is the lengthy courtroom interrogation scene, where Tracy shows the inability and discomfort of his character, who is very comfortable lording over men and cattle in the wide open spaces but feels claustrophobic inside the courthouse; as someone who never had to justify his actions and questioned about the same, Tracy\Matt’s reactions to the prosecutor’s questions are the same as the ones against anyone who questions his authority- to issue threats and challenges; that kind of behavior pretty much seal’s Matt’s (and Joe’s) fate. The third scene is the electrifying moment when Ben finally stands up to Matt; where Matt, who is now a cripple, is placed in a position where he has to beg his elder son not to sell out their land to an Oil corporation. This is also the moment where Widmark, who was relegated to the sidelines for the majority of the film, gets to shine by going toe to toe with his favorite actor- Tracy was Widmark’s hero. Widmark steals the scene, as Ben unleashes his pent-up anger at his father for ignoring him all his life. The scene following this, where Tracy dies on a horseback chasing Ben, is also memorable; it’s almost a supernatural moment.

Robert Wagner, who is not that famous for his histrionics, holds up pretty well against Tracy and Widmark. He manages to convey the anguish and the confusion of the half-breed son who is loved too much by his father and who’s hated and betrayed by his brothers. Where the performance of Wagner (and especially Widmark) goes totally wrong is in that ridiculous climax scene where Ben becomes kind of psychotic and decides to get rid of Joe. I don’t think any actor could have saved such an unconvincing sequence. That scene seems to come out of nowhere, just like ‘Two Moons’ coming out of nowhere to kill Ben in the scene. Widmark and Wagner gets involved in a ‘Cain and Abel’ style fight to death with rifles, sticks and stones. This seemed to have been added to give a satisfying traditional Western finale where good defeats evil. Katy Jurado, who was nominated for an Oscar, has very little to do except to lend calm dignity to her thankless role of the big man’s wife. She does it very well though and , along with “High Noon” and “One-Eyed Jacks,” this is her best performance. One can understand why the Oscar academy decided to nominate her for this performance rather then for her superior spitfire performance in “High Noon.”; this ticks all the boxes of a submissive, all-sacrificing ethnic character that the Academy was comfortable at the time. The film is directed by Edward Dmytryk, who was more famous for his Film Noirs like “Murder, My Sweet” and the Oscar nominated “Crossfire”. He is even more famous (or notorious) for being one of the Hollywood Ten who was imprisoned for not testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee about his past Communist affiliations. But later, he cooperated with the committee, naming names of fellow artists, and was released from prison; and he managed to continue directing films in Hollywood till the mid ’70s. He made few Westerns in his career, and of the ones he made I like “Warlock” and “Alvarez Kelly.” 1954 was a great year for Dmytryk: apart from “Broken Lance,” which was a big critical and commercial success, he also directed Humphrey Bogart to an Oscar nominated performance in “The Caine Mutiny,” perhaps his most famous film.


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