Broken Lance

by Glenn Erickson Nov 14, 2015

Edward Dmytryk’s big-scale cattle empire saga sees paterfamilias Spencer Tracy drive away his sons and bull his way into a modern civil dispute that can’t be resolved with force. Robert Wagner is the loyal son and Richard Widmark the resentful son impatient for Dad to cash in his chips. Fox’s early CinemaScope and stereophonic sound western is a transposition of a film noir mystery thriller.

Broken Lance
Twilight Time
Limited Edition
1954 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 96 min. / Ship Date November 10, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters, Richard Widmark, Katy Jurado, Hugh O’Brian, Eduard Franz, Earl Holliman, E.G. Marshall, Carl Benton Reid, Philip Ober.
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Richard Murphy, Philip Yordan
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Edward Dmytryk


Some of the early ‘big’ westerns that aspire to epic status are tales of powerful men running huge cattle empires and wielding larger than life power on the plains. The struggle to seize land and defend its boundaries and water rights is central to a string of ‘big’ movies, mostly in the post-war era. King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun, Anthony Mann’s The Furies and William Wyler’s The Big Country are just three. The power of these men influences other legends: he outlaw Billy the Kid is associated with land barons and political opportunists in countless retellings, among them Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Howard Hawks’ Red River is lauded as a great American story, yet John Wayne’s ‘great’ cattle baron gets his start by outright theft and bloodshed, on the opinion that the Mexican owners have too much land, and he’ll just take a few million acres for himself. Old-style cattle baron movies look back with inexplicable nostalgia at a New Frontier where one could get a fresh start by brute violence. Go America.


Some cattle empire movies resemble dynastic soap operas, but others have some frank things to say about consolidated power in a supposedly democratic country. Rich ranchers establish petty fiefdoms on the range, driving out Indians, Mexicans and poor settlers with no more justification than the power of their gunmen. Anthony Mann’s corrupt rancher prints his own currency, and forces employees and local businesses to take it. King Vidor’s haughty patriarch opposes the U.S. government’s easement right to build a railroad on ‘his’ sovereign property. Whatever happens, before the middle 1950s, it’s usually established that the cattle emperor’s word is law. In the admittedly extreme The Furies, the rakish Walter Huston is hanging, without trial, his daughter’s boyfriend. We don’t know if it’s because the man defied orders, because he might marry his daughter, or because he just claims the right to kill Mexican-Americans at will.

A kinder, gentler cattle empire picture was one of the first of the CinemaScope, Technicolor and Stereophonic sound pictures out the gate in 1954. Its stellar cast is led by Spencer Tracy, an actor whose name is synonymous with quality. The show strongly reflects the influence of the previous decade’s sensitive, revisionist attitude toward race relations. Yet it cleverly dodges confronting the subject head-on: the sin of bigotry is no longer a flaw of the mighty Cattle Baron, but something he’s fighting against.

Broken Lance is an unofficial transposition of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1948 film noir House of Strangers, a very good movie that recounts a King Lear- like struggle for power among the sons of a corrupt first-generation Italian banker in New York City. In both stories the grand patriarch of a successful family finds himself surrounded by resentful, untrustworthy sons.


Old troubles return with the release from jail of Joe Devereaux (Robert Wagner), the youngest son of the late rancher Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy), an unhappy man who ran a tight ranch. Devereaux pioneered the land and made peace with the Indians; his most loyal foreman was the elderly Two Moons (Eduard Franz). Joe’s mother “Señora” (Katy Jurado) is Devereaux’s second wife; his first bore Ben, Mike and Denny (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brien & Earl Holliman). The family meeting is not warm – Joe refuses his brothers’ offer of a buyout, inferring that their bitter feud will end in bloodshed. Seeing his pa’s portrait on the wall, Joe recalls in FLASHBACK the events that sent him to jail. By rashly striking back at an irresponsible mining operation that is fouling a river on his property, Matt gets himself in a serious legal bind. The ‘old way’ out of trouble would be to have Horace, the governor Matt put into office (E.G. Marshall) assign a friendly judge to the case. But Horace refuses to cooperate because he doesn’t like Matt’s ‘half-breed’ son Joe courting his newly arrived daughter, Barbara (Jean Peters). When it looks like pa will serve time, Joe steps up to take his place with a false confession. His brothers, true to form, refuse to spend the money needed to cut short his jail term. Having seized the ranch, Ben Devereaux exacts a revenge on the father he feels cheated him for years.

The smart screenplay by Richard Murphy, from Philip Yordan’s story, deftly juggles an armload of plot elements. In true conservative fashion, it continues to champion old Matt Devereaux in emotional terms, even though he created all his own problems. His sons by his first marriage may have been unworthy of responsibility, but he made them into wage slaves while favoring the less bitter but more honestly confrontational Joe. Matt had what it took to establish his ranch, by whatever violent means were necessary, and the movie doesn’t condemn these Old Boy Club ethics. He may have bought the local politicians, but he’s a liberal guy, having married an Indian maiden. For her part, Señora doesn’t serve as much of an endorsement for intermarriage — Matt loves her but ignores her sound advice. He still considers himself ‘the king,’ affording his spouse and children no say whatsoever. Dictators don’t voluntarily cede their authority.


Mike and Denny are 1950s-era delinquents replanted back in the 1880s. Matt catches them rustling their own cattle, as a way of getting more money than the paltry $40 a month he pays them. Matt whips them, less for their crime than because they’re just plain stupid. Joe is something of a wild card. He has sense and will stand up for his brothers, but is more than happy to help pa incite a gun battle with the miners. In reality Matt isn’t adapted to deal with the ‘civilized’ brutality of modern business. He let the mineral rights to his property slip away, and thinks that he can correct that mistake with force, as he did in the old days. Broken Lance plays out this halfway complex family dilemma in a logical fashion. But it is rigged to downplay Matt’s own faults in comparison to the more modern forms of venality and ingratitude around him.

We’re told that star Richard Widmark was so fed up with Fox that he took on the unrewarding supporting role of Ben Devereaux just to get out of his contract. He’s very good but the character, a resentful jerk, is given little shading and no compelling scenes. Matt asks Ben why, if he didn’t like life at the ranch, he didn’t just leave.  This only makes Ben more angry. The only way to inherit anything for all that time he took orders and worked for low wages, is to stick around and hope for some payback. Seeing the fairly big star Widmark in the supporting role should be surprising — just the year before he starred with Jean Peters in Sam Fuller’s superb Pickup on South Street. In this movie, they barely look at each other.

All of the attention in the film goes to Robert Wagner, who for a few years would be Fox’s golden boy, a young replacement for their old star Tyrone Power. Given all the good scenes, Wagner plays well with Tracy and romances Jean Peters. His Joe is enough like Matt to gain the old man’s respect. Jean Peters is also praised for daring to (gently) contradict Matt at the dinner table. The movie plays the race tension as a major plot point, but carefully assigns that sin to people other than the main stars. Thus begins Hollywood’s big dodge, trumpeting Civil Rights virtues while avoiding saying anything about them.

Star Spencer Tracy still pulled in the audiences. His health was already in terrible shape, and the filmmakers make ample use of an excellent double to minimize the time he spends on a horse. For all his vaunted excellence as an actor, Tracy fluffs his way through scenes, more than once stumbling in his delivery. He was reportedly generous to his co-players but also sometimes a lazy actor, especially when he had more power than the director.


This director likely had little power on the set. Broken Lance sees the accomplished Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire, Give Us This Day) dutifully serving his new boss Darryl Zanuck. One of the original Hollywood Ten who served real jail time, Dmytryk earned the undying scorn of his colleagues by recanting and naming names to buy his way back into his profession. He’s lucky that Columbia and Fox didn’t renege on the deal, even if he was used as a ‘good example’ of HUAC’s supposed leniency. It’s difficult to judge the man — I didn’t have my livelihood pulled out from under me. To be honest, Hollywood is such a cutthroat place that writers and directors of all political persuasions needed no excuses to do underhanded things. The only possible harsh justice is that, with a scant few exceptions, Dmytryk’s post-fink output is mostly badly directed hackwork, especially ‘big’ assignments like Raintree County.

In Broken Lance Dmytryk gives in to the ‘new rules’ of blocking shots for CinemaScope. These were initially enforced by the studio’s cameramen, who very often called the camera angles, while the director stayed with his actors. Pro director of photography Joe MacDonald was likely in the camp that hated CinemaScope. Its relatively crude optics delivered a soft image with a shallow focus and a warped optical field that could add distortion comparable to a fun house mirror. Objects could become skinny at the extreme left or right, and close-ups were often cursed with the CinemaScope ‘mumps,’ a horizontal stretching effect. In most scenes MacDonald doesn’t let the camera get too close to his actors, although he does extremely well with some tight shots of Wagner and Peters. Because they stay wide, scenes frequently showcase sets over the actors. With its unusually roomy rustic interiors and a lot of attractive outdoor scenery, Broken Lance gets by. But Dmytryk more often than not just covers scenes in loose shots where we admire lamps, fireplaces, our just the expanse of blue sky. The movie looks very good but has few memorable images — unlike the progressive camerawork in the next year’s East of Eden and Bad Day at Black Rock, which use graphic stylization to reinvigorate the initially bland CinemaScope vistas.


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Broken Lance is a sparkling transfer of a film that has never before looked very good on video. Colors are mostly fine; Fox’s transfer colorists almost erase the timing jumps that occur whenever the image cuts to an optical dupe for a dissolve or fade. This is a quantum improvelment over old TV prints that looked so terrible.

From what I learned about the lab mishandling of the film The Guns of Navarone, I may have the answer as to how a gorgeous Technicolor release like Broken Lance – which was shot on normal Eastman film stock — would have problems later on. In the Technicolor system normal dissolves and fades were often accomplished at the printing (or actually publishing) stage, leaving no trace of grainy duplicated film opticals. When the last I.B. Tech print was struck, the negative was re-cut and opticals shot to produce a standard photochemical printing master for subsequent releases, and to make non-theatrical and TV elements, often in 16mm. The film is taken down several generations. The work is not monitored as closely as when the show was brand new, and millions are at stake. I think this is one reason why a fantastic-looking picture like Shane existed for a long time in poor copies — when it was reissued in the late 1950s, it was treated just like any other second-tier lab order. At UCLA in 1972, Paramount’s only copies of Shane were from this reissue, and they were not pretty.

This new Blu-ray finally gives us a Broken Lance that sparkles again. I will guess that a lot of effort was used to pull color and clarity out of old, weak negative elements. As the colorists can now do near- miracles with faded film, we have to assume that when Spencer Tracy’s face goes a tiny, tiny bit yellow, that heaven and earth had to be moved to prevent him from looking a sickly green. Overall the show is stunning and a pleasure to watch. The stereophonic soundtrack with Leigh Harline’s music is a treat in itself. The early ‘Scope movies in stereo had punchy directional mixes that stylized the audio, as opposed to today’s tracks that merely ladle on realistic presences. Broken Lance was one of the movies Fox promoted heavily when their library came to Network TV in 1961, via Saturday Night at the Movies. I remember struggling through the pan-scan broadcasts and getting lost in the flurry of commercials that stretched the 96-minute show out to what seemed an eternity. It’s a much more relaxing experience now.

Twilight Time expert Nick Redman hosts a nice commentary chat with Earl Holliman, who has an excellent memory for the film. A runaway from Louisiana, Holliman recalls that a bad haircut made him look even more like a hick, and won him his first good parts — he’s convinced that the haircut made the difference. Harline’s music is on an Isolated Score Track, and a newsreel shows the movie winning an Oscar for best story. Will we ever know whether Philip Yordan actually wrote this one, or if it came from his bullpen of hired screenwriters?

I failed what I think must be a diabolical trap laid by Twilight Time — I couldn’t find a single difference between the two trailers offered as extras. Did one not have a reference to CinemaScope or stereo sound? I’m sure the answer will prove how unobservant I am. Julie Kirgo’s insert pamphlet essay also cocks an eyebrow at Yordan’s Oscar win, but for other reasons. Honest, judge, I swear that I read Julie’s insightful essay only after writing my own.

The only nit to pick with the disc is the cover art, which… isn’t so hot. A view of the backside of Spencer Tracy’s horse might look better.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Broken Lance
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent English 5.0 DTS-HD MA / English 2.0 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Commentary with Earl Holliman, hosted by Nick Redman, newsreel, trailers, Islolated Score Track, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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