“Broken Trail” – AMC Miniseries TV Review

On June 24-25, AMC will premiere its first original miniseries, “Broken Trail,” a large-scale Western for television.

In his opening remarks at the red-carpet premiere at the Loews Lincoln Square in New York City, Ed Carroll, president of Rainbow Media Services – which operates AMC – described this movie as “a throwback to the big, wide open, beautifully shot, well crafted stories and beautifully acted stories — Western stories — that Hollywood is really not making anymore these days.”

Indeed, although every once in a while there is an attempt to revive the genre, Hollywood has mostly been content to cede this territory to television. Since the iconography of the American Western has become ingrained in the popular culture to the point of cliché, a hook is usually necessary to distinguish it from the many previous versions.

“Broken Trail”‘s variation concerns the plight of Chinese women brought over to the Midwest in the late 1800’s to serve as prostitutes in mining camps and brothels. The parallels to today’s global sex trafficking are obvious. The fate of five young women being sold for this purpose is the fulcrum for the main action of the film. The women, transported by a cruel trafficker (James Russo), cross paths with Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom (Thomas Haden Church) as they cross from Oregon to Wyoming to sell cattle. It becomes a violent clash, after Tom kills the trafficker for stealing his money, and Print and Tom, along with a fiddle player Tom employs as a hired hand, decide to take responsibility for the young women.

Veteran director Walter Hill is certainly no stranger to the Western, having already essayed the genre in such films as The Long Riders, Wild Bill, and Last Man Standing. His comfort and skill with the material are evident, as much of the film consists of long montages of horse and cattle crossings, running streams and rivers, mountains and sunsets. Even though this film was shot in Canada and doesn’t quite approach the grand vistas of John Ford’s or Howard Hawks’ westerns, Hill makes the most of his material. He also equips himself well in the numerous action sequences, including the violent showdown at the film’s conclusion.

Robert Duvall, as the wise, world-weary Ritter, fits his role like a comfortable shoe. Duvall developed the story with screenwriter Alan Geoffrion, and he effortlessly inhabits his character using a quite authentic dialect that convincingly portrays how such a man would act, talk and think. Thomas Haden Church, while far from Duvall’s equal, handles himself well here. The standout among the Chinese actresses is Olivia Cheng, who gives a moving performance as the most abused of the young women, who is repeatedly raped before even reaching her place of slavery. Her haunted eyes speak volumes.

While “Broken Trail” is certainly to be applauded for calling attention to this little-known facet of American history, one wishes more illumination could be brought to bear on this story. Even though I did appreciate the fact that the women spoke Mandarin instead of halting, broken English, there isn’t much probing into their previous lives other than the fact that they were sold by their families and had bound feet. Other than the scenes in which they talk to each other, and their limited interaction with their benefactors, they mostly exist as silent sufferers who must be saved by the white characters, whose conflicts are prominently foregrounded. One would think that in the course of four hours, there would be some time to explore the women’s characters a little more deeply.

That said, “Broken Trail” nevertheless is an entertaining and well-acted movie that is worthy of viewers’ attention, and hopefully it will encourage other filmmakers to uncover other aspects of the American West that have yet to be examined.

Broken Trail airs on Sun., June 25 and Mon., June 26, on AMC at 8 p.m./7 p.m. Central. For more information about the movie, go to http://brokentrail.amctv.com/.