Broken Lance [1954]

The Proud Ones: The main draw (and quick draw) of this 1956 Western is the marvelous presence of Robert Ryan in the lead role. This underappreciated actor plays a Kansas marshal with a history of perceived cowardice in his past. Everything comes to a head in a single week: a cattle drive ends in town, bringing shootin' and hollerin'; Ryan's nemesis, a casino-runner played by veteran bad guy Robert Middleton, arrives to soak the suckers; and young hotshot Jeffrey Hunter, whose father was killed by Ryan, arrives with revenge on his mind. Oh, and Ryan himself begins to suffer from blinding headaches. Despite the crowded plot, the results are Fifties Western boilerplate, with few distinguishing features beyond the cast. But the supporting ranks are crowded with essential horse-saga actors: Walter Brennan, Arthur O'Connell, Rodolfo Acosta, and of course the bearded, lizard-eyed Middleton. Virginia Mayo plays Ryan's hotel-keeper ladyfriend. Ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard gets a few good outdoor CinemaScope set-ups into the generally backlot feel of the thing. But the reason to see the film is lanky Robert Ryan, whose compelling mix of neurosis, gentleness, and fury is on full display here. --Robert Horton Forty Guns: Forty Guns is the most rampantly sexualized Western ever made, and the most outrageous of Samuel Fuller's late-'50s B movies. Fuller's original title was "Woman with a Whip," referring to the hard-riding range baroness--Barbara Stanwyck, sporting silver hair and (most of the time) black, skintight man togs--who's "the boss of Cochise County" and a law unto herself. The forty guns are an army of pistoleros who accompany her just about everywhere, and Fuller misses no opportunity to exaggerate their macho assertiveness in black-and-white CinemaScope, whether thundering along the horizon or formed up on either side of a preposterously long dinner table with Stanwyck at its head. Barry Sullivan costars as a Wyatt Earp-like gunfighter who both threatens Stanwyck's empire and awakens her lust for something besides power. As one of his brothers, Gene Barry (soon to star in Fuller's mind-blowing Vietnam movie China Gate) enjoys a passionate liaison with a gunsmith's busty blond daughter (Eve Brent) whom he romances down the bore of a rifle--an image Jean-Luc Godard would memorialize in Breathless. In the relentlessly double-entendre dialogue and the blocking of scenes, everything takes on sexual overtones: power and impotence, political advantage and exclusion. Fuller and cameraman Joseph Biroc capture many sequences in single, minutes-long takes that often end in a death--and in one perverse instance, the revelation of a death that has occurred midway through without our knowing it. (It's a T.S. Eliot moment, though we won't insist on it.) Style is all in this movie, which will leave you either astonished or aghast. More likely, both. --Richard T. Jameson Broken Lance: Broken Lance is a noble entry in the trend of adult Westerns of the early 1950s, scoring on a couple of fronts: (1) as a multigenerational saga, with Shakespearian overtones, of a family bickering over a giant ranch, and (2) as a grown-up look at the dilemma of the Native American... its title perhaps inspired by the Indian-friendly Broken Arrow? Spencer Tracy stars as the blustery patriarch of a cattle spread, threatened by pollution from a nearby copper mine as well as the shiftiness of his older sons (Richard Widmark, Hugh O'Brian, and Earl Holliman). Tracy's bluff characterization--as ever, he seems to be yanking at the script like a cat unraveling a ball of yarn--carries the film effortlessly along. The central character is actually his youngest and wisest son, played by Robert Wagner, who's not especially convincing as the mixed-race issue of Tracy's second marriage, to an Indian woman (Oscar nominee Katy Jurado). Edward Dmytryk directs in a style that could be called "intelligent," which is another way of saying "not very exciting." The early CinemaScope probably accounts for some of the static set-ups, although there are exteriors that are breathtaking (watching this film in its full-screen version would be crazy). The cast is certainly tops; Widmark is overqualified to play a third lead, but who's complaining? Most memorable is the loving relationship between Tracy's cattleman and his Indian wife, although the subject of Native Americans is secondary here (check out The Devil's Doorway and Apache for more overt Fifties looks at the topic). Veteran screenwriter Philip Yordan won an Oscar for his "original story," a curious and long-defunct Academy Award category. --Robert Horton The Culpepper Cattle Co.: The Culpepper Cattle Company is a worthy example of a certain kind of early-1970s Western: deglamorized, unromantic, and frankly violent. This one begins in familiar terms, as a greenhorn lad (Gary Grimes, recently deflowered in Summer of '42) joins a cattle drive, surrendering himself to the extremely focused leadership of boss Frank Culpepper (the authentically Western Billy "Green" Bush). The episodes that follow are engrossing and colorful, and the drive gets more interesting when a quartet of lethal hombres (among them Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, and wild-eyed Geoffrey Lewis) join the ride. The business of frontier justice--which here usually means shooting strangers just to be on the safe side--is worked out in refreshingly unheroic ways. Clearly director Dick Richards (making his debut in a relatively brief directing career) is responding to the revisionist era, and specifically to the films of the great Sam Peckinpah; this movie's climax is a scaled-down nod to The Wild Bunch. Probably too scaled-down, given the somewhat abrupt ending. The music uses themes from Jerry Goldsmith's terrific score for The Flim-Flam Man, released five years earlier. Culpepper got lost in the flurry of revisionist westerns that sounded similar themes: The Cowboys, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, and by far the best of this group, Robert Benton's Bad Company. All were released in 1972, a high-water mark for re-thinking the genre. --Robert Horton

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