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BROKEN LANCE (director: Edward Dmytryk; screenwriters: Richard Murphy/Philip Yordan; cinematographer: Joe MacDonald; editor: Dorothy Spencer; music: Leigh Harline; cast: Spencer Tracy (Matt Devereaux), Robert Wagner (Joe Devereaux), Jean Peters (Barbara), Richard Widmark (Ben Devereaux), Katy Jurado (Señora Devereaux), Hugh O’Brian (Mike Devereaux), Eduard Franz (Two Moons), Earl Holliman (Danny Devereaux), E.G. Marshall (The Governor, Horace), Carl Benton Reid (Clem Lawton), Robert Burton (MacAndrews); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol C. Siegel; 20th Century Fox; 1954)
“It lifts its plot line from Joseph Mankiewicz’s powerful 1949 House of Strangers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A derivative but gripping and well-acted Western directed by Edward Dmytryk and written by Richard Murphy and Philip Yordan. It’s about a family quarrel among four sons and a tyrannical cattle baron father, in the mode of King Lear. It lifts its plot line from Joseph Mankiewicz’s powerful 1949 House of Strangers.

Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) is the self-made wealthy Irish ranch owner who is bullheaded and mean to his four sons Ben (Richard Widmark), Danny (Earl Holliman), Mike (Hugh O’Brian) and the youngest Joe (Robert Wagner) — the only one he had with his Indian second wife (Katy Jurado). The hard-nosed Matt tried to instill in them the same no-nonsense work ethic that made him the richest rancher in the territory and one of the most influential men in the state, but the only one who likes him even though he doesn’t approve of his tough ways of never showing the boys any tenderness or love is Joe.

Not of the mind-set to do things legally (which means to him the long and inefficient way), Matt instead prefers to take care of his own problems in the way he sees fit. The quick tempered Matt when faced with a cattle poisoning problem goes against the advice of his sons to get a court injunction against the copper mining company responsible and it results in Matt and his men destroying their business operation after being provoked by the acerbic boss MacAndrews (Robert Burton). The unethical company is polluting his streams with hazardous wastes that is killing off his cattle, and refuse to take responsibility for their action as they are backed by the corrupt local government. As a result of Matt’s foolhardy actions, the mining camp sues and wins when the governor (E.G. Marshall), someone Matt helped put in office, refuses to appoint a friendly judge. The governor is upset because half-breed Joe is going out with his cultured eastern bred daughter Barbara (Jean Peters) and Matt refuses to tell his son not to see her anymore. Matt’s lawyer (Carl Benton Reid) figures the only way to save his client from jail is to offer a lucrative money settlement to the big eastern mining company, get Matt to cede control of his ranch to his four sons (his wife can’t own the place because Indians are not allowed to own land) and get one of the sons to take the rap for him. The only son who volunteers is Joe, and is sentenced to a three-year prison term of hard labor. When he comes out of prison, Joe learns his pa got a heart attack while he was away and has recently died–also that his brothers have betrayed their father. With Ben doing the talking for his vile and not too bright brothers, he offers Joe $10,000 to give up his birthright and start over again far away in the Oregon territory. When Joe refuses the offer, the internecine struggle picks up in intensity and becomes a violent testament to the death of the Old West and its ideas about manhood and loyalty. It ends with Joe breaking the Comanche lance and going off in a horse-buggy with his white woman to find peace in a more civilized part of America. Perhaps it has a little of what Dmytryk was personally going through, as he had to live with himself after naming fellow Hollywood film people as commies to the HUAC just so he could not be blacklisted (hoping he could find peace away from his former friends who turned against him).

Joe MacDonald’s stunning CinemaScope landscape shots (partially filmed on location in Arizona), the strong acting by Tracy, Wagner, Widmark and a marvelously sensitive performance by Jurado (she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination), plus Yordan’s tightly drawn Original Story (winning him an Oscar), and that the film was PC before its time in exposing racial prejudice and the devious link between politicians and big companies in polluting the environment, make this a superior Western.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”