Starring: Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Walter Hill
Mood: If your soul’s tank is so achingly empty that you need an epic and thoroughly satisfying story to fill you back up.
You have to be in the exact right mood to watch a Western miniseries.
A miniseries is an UNDERTAKING. It’s a commitment. You can’t just throw it on at 8pm on a work night. You have to be ready to settle in and do the whole damn thing. I can’t watch the first half and trust that I’ll have time to watch the rest the next day. And how often do I have a 3-6 hour window?
Nine times out of ten, when I look at my DVD shelf, I won’t pick a miniseries… even though those are some of the best Westerns.
But since I’ve recently been moping around over the unexpected passing of my Western-loving future father-in-law, too distracted to work, it turns out I’m in the prime mental state for sitting on the couch for the full duration of an epic miniseries. And let me tell you, Broken Trail is very that.
It’s sprawling yet intimate, fierce yet sweet. It’s way better than Lonesome Dove, in my humble opinion. And since this is my review website, mine’s the only opinion that counts.
Broken Trail opens in San Francisco in 1898. A group of five Chinese girls are being sold into prostitution. Cut to Oregon, where Prent Ritter (Robert Duvall) rides up to his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) to deliver the news that Harte’s mom passed away and left everything to her brother.
But Prent wants to make things fair, so he asks Harte to join him rounding up and pushing 500 horses to Wyoming for sale to the British Army. Harte can earn 25% of the take, and do something more significant with his life than working someone else’s cattle ranch. On the way they run into the girls and their captor, and find themselves adding a rescue mission into the trip.
I don’t know what else to say about the plot because it’s so simple – push the horses from Oregon to Wyoming, and take the girls someplace safe. But there is SO MUCH F*CKING ACTION and heart packed into that framework; every scene has meaning, and every moment feels like a valuable part of something bigger.
That’s the big difference between Broken Trail and Lonesome Dove. Where Dove exhausted me with long scenes of sleepy dialogue and characters who didn’t leave a mark, the entirety of Broken Trail feels purposeful. The tight cast means you get to form feelings for each character, so you’re invested in their personal journeys.
Thomas Haden Church will always be Lyle from George of the Jungle to me, but he is SO F*CKING GOOD as a Western lead. He’s mastered his own brand of humourless gruffness, putting everything he feels into a single look. He’s got all the great Western lead qualities, too: weather-worn and rugged, distinctive voice, and what I’ll allow as an attempt at a thick moustache.
Haden Church also has the best character arc. You get to see him grow both from his work with the horses and his connection with the girls, in particular Sun Foy (Gwendoline Yeo).
Robert Duvall as Prent is probably my favourite Duvall role. You always kind of know what you’re going to get with him, especially in the last 20 years. But in Broken Trail he felt a little less bumbling and like a pervy old man. His monologues didn’t make me sleepy. In the later bits of part two, when his backstory is revealed, his sweetness and protectiveness over the girls make so much sense.
Prent also makes a reference in part two to being from the Cumberland, which was home to many of L’Amour’s fictional Sacketts so that made me happy.
Olivia Cheng delivers an absolutely haunting performance as Ye Fung, aka #4. Because TRIGGER WARNING, Broken Trail is also an unflinching look at the experiences of young Chinese girls shipped to the West Coast and sold to camps where they would be treated worse than animals until they died (have you seen Deadwood season two? Yeah, it’s f*cking brutal.)
Cheng’s performance is a thing of beauty, it’s so thoroughly devastating. She looks genuinely broken and dead inside, after being raped twice in her short time on U.S. soil.
Chris Mulkey makes a great villain in the role of Big Ears. He has those beady little eyes that make him look like he’s got no morals.
Broken Trail was actually the first-ever AMC original movie, and it won heaps of well-deserved awards. The cinematography is just gorgeous. It was shot outside Calgary, where lots of great Westerns are filmed. Those wide scenic shots almost make me want to move to Alberta… but not quite. You can keep your conservative assholes on your side of the fence.
If you want a Western with a story to tell, Broken Trail is a brilliant f*cking story. It’s got the classic Western themes of riding the trail, bonding over campfires, hard work, justice, revenge, and doing the right thing.
Make yourself that 3-hour window and watch this show. If you regret it, we can’t be friends.