“Broken Lance” (1954) begins much like many westerns that have come before and since. Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner), the youngest of four brothers, is released from a Texas prison after serving three years. Most of the film is seen in flashback, as we discover the looming problems that have plagued the Devereaux family for years. The father, Matt (Spencer Tracy), is a tough, no-nonsense man who lost his first wife many years before, after having three sons. He then remarried to an Indian woman (Katy Jurado), and although the community pretends to respect her, they go so far as to call her “Senora” and pretend she is Mexican, instead of acknowledging her true heritage. After their marriage, they had another son, Joe, who is also looked down on because of his being a “half-breed”.
The three older brothers, Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian) and Denny (Earl Holliman), hate their father for the way he treats them and how hard he has always made them work. Perhaps they want his love, or just to be doted upon like Joe- then again, maybe it’s just Matt’s money they want. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, they’re unsettled and that means problems.
Matt also has his fair share of business problems, as the times are changing and he still enjoys doing things the old way. Whenever there is trouble, Matt reaches for his gun instead of a sheriff. When a copper mine is found dumping toxins into his stream, Matt heads out for a confrontation that ends badly. Matt turns to his longtime friend, the governor (E.G. Marshall), for help, but the governor is upset that his daughter (Jean Peters) has fallen in love with Matt’s half Indian son, Joe, and refuses to help in any way.
“Broken Lance” is a great movie because it has so many things working in its favor. First, there’s the father/son relationship angle that always works well, especially with the dynamic of Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark going up against each other. Second, there is the changing times where law and order took over, leaving the gun-wielding, headstrong men obsolete. Finally, and most importantly, “Broken Lance” head-on tackles the issue of a white man marrying an Indian woman. Few films take on so many subjects and deliver drama and passion on every level.
The acting is what makes everything come together here, with Tracy giving another stirring performance that is only enhanced by the amazing supporting players around him. Richard Widmark is brilliant, and it’s his confrontations with his old man that stand out the most. Perhaps it’s the love that these characters share amid their hatred that makes the tension so enthralling. (Watching Tracy take his bull whip to Widmark is a lasting image that make the whole film worth seeing.) Robert Wagner, Jean Peters and E.G. Marshall all add to the overall quality of the film, with their usual fine acting, but it’s Katy Jurado who really takes things to the next level. She was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, which I have always enjoyed, considering how much of her career she spent being cast as an Indian, even though she was a Mexican. Her acceptance as a Mexican actress was a battle that she would face day in and day out throughout her career, much the way her character in “Broken Lance” would always be subject to these same prejudices.
The other star of this picture is the great cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, with of course the help of CinemaScope. It’s a glorious film to see, showcasing the expansive western landscapes that seem to be unending. The DVD of “Broken Lance” offers both the widescreen and full screen versions of this film, which seems laughable because who would ever watch the full screen version of this magnificent film? Director Edward Dmytryk crafted this film with the expert hand of an artist. It amazes me that he was able to make such a great film as this in the same year that he released the Best Picture nominated “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). Many directors have spent their entire careers attempting to duplicate the success that Dmytryk achieved in 1954, and that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the rest of his outstanding career.