Robert Duvall believes people are always in the mood for a good western. "The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov, and we've got the cowboy story," he said. "I am somewhat a student of the West, of the people and that time. It's all about the stories."
"Broken Trail," the adventure of two cowboys who drive a herd of horses more than 1,000 miles in 1897, includes an unusual element: the rescue of five Chinese girls sold into prostitution.
"They were forced on him by circumstance, but they came like a family to him," Duvall said of his character, Print Ritter, whose sense of ethics leads him to protect the young women and bring them along on his journey. "He was the kind of guy who felt he had to step up and do some things, but when he had to kill someone, he didn't hesitate."
Developed by writer Alan Geoffrion, a friend and neighbor of Duvall's in Fauquier County, the script follows Ritter as he suggests a joint business venture with his nephew (Thomas Haden Church): The two will buy 500 mustangs, driving them east from Oregon, for sale to a Wyoming dealer who is collecting horses for the British government. The profit will give each man a stake for a new life.
"Horses were in demand at that time for the wars in Europe, especially the high desert mustangs, which were easy keepers," said Duvall, an accomplished horseman. "Some were sold for the Boer Wars in South Africa, some for the Cuban conflicts, but they all needed horses."
The men's travels are complicated by the unwieldy herd, rugged territory and occasional rough weather, as well as encounters with thieves and Indians and the unexpected addition of their traveling companions.
Church said the subplot about the young women and other scenes in the movie "are manifestations of real things that happened in the 1800s."
The Ritter character "has a spareness and a sadness" that's reminiscent of Duvall's role in the 1989 miniseries "Lonesome Dove," Church said.
Duvall, who also is an executive producer on "Broken Trail," said viewers may compare AMC's first original movie with "Lonesome Dove," but there are differences.
"This is based on a real family I knew whose grandfather had taken horses from Oregon to Nebraska years ago," he said. "'Lonesome Dove' was [about] a cattle drive. This is a horse drive, and it is more of a character-driven story."
Filmed in the Canadian Rockies last summer, the production wrapped in 45 days. A freak snowstorm was included in a stagecoach scene.
"You go up to Calgary and you inherit the benefit of God's work if you're outside making a western," said director Walter Hill.
"Usually, I'm kind of associated with a guns-a-blazin' type of western, but this had a more philosophical aspect," Hill said. "These were not trained social workers; they were cowboys on the adventure of their lives... saddled with protecting these young girls. It becomes a great lesson in recognizing the common debt that we have to help each other in times of duress."
Another challenge: riding herd, literally, on a large number of horses. Hill used about 225 animals, with computer-generated imaging doubling the number.
"They'd mill them around and create more energy with the illusion of activity," said Church, who often rode with the wranglers, guiding the horses back to the ranch after a day's shoot. Many of the horses had never been in a film before, including Duvall's mount, a gray quarter horse named Wrangler.
"He was so well broke, he really got into it," Duvall said. "These horses were leased out from all different places. An old cowboy told me that sometimes once you get a lot of horses moving [together], they're easier to handle than cattle. But we'd have these horses ready to go and at the last minute, before they'd call 'action,' the horses would move on their own, following their herd instinct."
The Old West, Renewed
Cable television has been good for westerns, according to director Walter Hill.
"There is a viable audience for the western now, rather than in the 1980s, before cable was so widespread," he said.
Hill said cable has helped not only to preserve the western genre, with reruns of older western movies and series -- such as "Gunsmoke" or "Bonanza" -- but also to inspire fresh programming, such as HBO's "Deadwood" and TNT's 2005 miniseries "Into the West."
"Look at Tom Selleck in those TV westerns ["Monte Walsh," "Crossfire Trail"], all very watchable anytime they're on," Hill said.
The reason AMC made "Broken Trail," he said, "is that cable networks do well when they show westerns, because they're serving the core of their audience."
-- Kathy Blumenstock
---- Washington Post, 2006-06-25