Ridin' the dusty trail with Robert Duvall

June 25, 2006
BY DOUG ELFMAN Television Critic

In "Broken Trail," Robert Duvall plays a cowboy, one who has to go potty in the great outdoors. But it's 1897 and there's no toilet paper. He ducks behind brush with a fistful of the granddaddy of toilet paper, this paper-ish stuff called "therapeutic papers." His cowboy nephew calls out to ask him if it has splinters in it.

"Beats corncob," Duvall shouts back.

It's moments like that in "Broken Trail" which seem true to the Old West. And it reminds viewers not to whine about living in our cushy times.

But before you get holier-than-thou about how civilized life has become with its fancy toilet paper, keep in mind the evils in "Broken Trail" resemble parallels of today. Duvall's character, Uncle Print, and his nephew Tom are herding horses over hill and dale when they end up having to give safe harbor to five Chinese women who were shipped to the States to be prostitutes.

Those women's families sold them into the sex trade -- exactly the way many parents around the world still profit from enslaving their kids.

In "Broken Trail," everything new is old again. There are rape scenes and killings. Tom (the excellent Thomas Haden Church) blows one guy's thumbs off and hangs another. There's murder and sad stories for everyone, and acts of generosity in response, all of which you'll find somewhere in 2006.

Duvall, 75, is somewhat familiar with news stories about the contemporary slave trade, but when he was helping write and produce "Broken Trail," he apparently hadn't thought of the miniseries as a contemporary parable.

"It goes on in every country, I guess. Those things go on."

In fact, he claims, American Indians, among others, sold people into slavery.

"So," he says, and unleashes the wisest celebrity sentence of the year, "everybody did everything to everybody."

"Broken Trail" isn't hardscrabble action. As Westerns go, it's a character-based miniseries. It's often a romanticized version of cowboys, with jaunty music playing while they brand livestock. It's not romanticized at all when bad things happen, like hangings and sexual assault.

It starts with the Chinese slaves being inspected. They try to cover their nipples to no avail. An inspector spreads their legs. This scene's not shot and edited as grisly as it could be, but it's no glorification either.

Duvall sees the principal characters as flawed heroes who rescue the women but sometimes reluctantly.

"He's a good guy and a bad guy. He's a decent guy," Duvall says of his character Uncle Print.

Writer Alan Geoffrion strived to make "Broken Trail" as genuine as possible, right down to the "therapeutic papers," people dying of tick fever, and a lamb shepherd who wears a mishmash of fur around his shoulders.

"He even had cowboys read it and check it for authenticity," Duvall says.

Duvall and Geoffrion pitched it to Hollywood as a movie, but studios didn't bite. They ended up at AMC, where Duvall was happy to be, but he had to fight to keep others from turning the miniseries into a nail-biting adventure.

"They kept saying it needed a 'B' plot. I'm not sure it needed that. We had a lot of problems with the rewrites. They would rewrite, and then Al and I would come in at night and rewrite the rewrites.

"The thing was going off in another direction, with gunfights and action. This is a character-driven piece, so we had to make sure we could keep it on track that way."

The dialogue isn't filled up with a bunch of throwaway cliches, although Duvall's character has a few lines of wisdom to dispense, like "Never use money to measure wealth," and "It's a great life, when it ain't rainin' or snowin'."

It could have been far grittier in look and feel, especially when one bad guy says, "I'll let you have a stab at the almost-virgin for a buck apiece." A raped slave whispers, "I am a ghost." Director Walter Hill ("48 Hrs," "The Warriors") keeps the tone and texture even-keeled to let words and behaviors speak for themselves.

There are a lot of nooses in it. There's a noose on a man's neck, a noose on a horse, a metaphoric noose on the necks of the prostitutes.

Some viewers probably will sympathize with a horse that falls when its rider gets shot. But Duvall says no horses got hurt, unlike in older Westerns.

"Those are falling horses. They're trained to do that. They pull the rein a certain way. The horse will rear and fall. They dig a little pit there to make it more soft when they fall in."

"Broken Trail" was filmed in the Canadian Rockies near Calgary, not too far from where "Brokeback Mountain" was shot.

"It's like Texas without the accent," Duvall says, and "no colder than Chicago."

Chicago, he says, is where he's been the hottest and coldest of his life. The hottest?

"I worked there 14 years ago. Hotter than the Philippines or Houston was Chicago. Remember, it was, like, 117 and the old people died."

Duvall will come back again relatively soon, to see a tango place called Duvall's Club that's being opened in Little Italy by his nephew Billy, a brother's son who lives here.

"I like Chicago. I used to come once a month. I was the voice for United Airlines years ago. I got tickets to anywhere in the world," he says. "Then when I changed agents, they got mad at me and took it away from me -- instantly -- and gave it to my friend Gene Hackman. So I don't come to Chicago."

Too bad. It's a great city, when it ain't rainin' or snowin', aside from the occasional prostitution trafficking that goes on.

---- Chicago Sun Times, 2006-06-25