by Shelley Gabert 1/13/2006 at 11:39

In the shadow of Brokeback and Deadwood, the basic cable networks are doing their best to make the traditional longform western popular again.

"People often say westerns don't sell," suggests actor Robert Duvall at this week's Television Critics Association Press Tour. "But every time we make one people definitely watch."

Duvall stars with Thomas Haden Church in the two-part Broken Trail, AMC's first original scripted project but the eight time the prestigious creative team of director Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Last Man Standing, etc.) and cinematographer Lloyd Ahern has collaborated. Their past credits include Wild Bill, Geronimo, An American Legend (which also starred Duvall) and, of course, the Deadwood pilot, for which Hill (pictured at bottom) won an Emmy.

"You know, I always say the English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov, and so forth and so on," Duvall ovserves. "And the western is uniquely ours, combined with Alberta, Canada. From Alberta to Texas, it is our genre, and it's our thing. So I think there's always a sporadic interest in the western, whether it comes and goes it will always live, as the tango will always live in South America."

Broken Trail is the story of two cowboys, Print Ritter (Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte (Hayden Church), who herd 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming but along the way meet up with a trafficker of five Chinese girls, who will be forced to serve as prostitutes at a local mining camp. Ritter and Harte rescue the girls but at great risk to completing their journey. The film also stars Greta Scacchi (Jefferson in Paris, The Player), Gwendoline Yeo (The Magic of Ordinary Days) and newcomers Olivia Cheng, Valerie Tian, Jadyn Wong and Caroline Chan.

"You know, it's like we got to make the best movie we can, and by God, you know, we got to pick this big, heavy bastard up every day and move it six inches and then come back and do it all over again tomorrow," enthuses Haden Church.

"But, you know what, at the end of the trail, you're like, holy sh*t, you know, we accomplished a pretty remarkable task. Believe me, working with those horses every day is a blood inspiring feat every single day, especially when they would get out of control and they'd be charging right at you, and everybody would be yelling at me to stop the herd."

Certainly, Duvall admits to really enjoying working on Westerns and riding horses. He also praises the film's wrangler's. "I insisted that the Bews be on the movie," he recalls. "Horses are collectively a character in this movie so we needed everything to be right. They're equal to any cowboy family on either side of the border. And right after this movie was finished, they went up to Edmonton and won the National Champion Working Ranch Rodeo of all the ranchers in Canada."

Duvall also bought a horse a year before shooting began to literally get back in the saddle, riding every day at his farm in Virginia. And it's clear Church enjoyed working with the wily old veteran.

"I actually met him when I was in grad school and I was working at a hotel, the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas," Church remembers. "But when I was a freshman in college, a movie came out called True Confessions, it's one of his more obscure performances. But it was directed by a man named Ulu Grosbard, and he co-stars with Robert De Niro, and it's a tremendous tale."

"Bob is absolutely just towering in it. And it really was an inspiration. It was such an inspiration of a performance for me that it was really right about then -- that and The Great Santini and for so many performances of Bob's, going all the way back to Mockingbird, that I thought, you know, this is an actor, but this is a man who has tremendous dignity and poise in the roles that he chooses."

At the end of shooting, Church gave Duvall a gift, along with a special message of thanks. "I wrote in the note that he inspired me to choose acting as a profession for the dignity of it and that, by virtue of working with him, he was going to inspire me really for the rest my life to choose projects that have dignity and have poise and are going to be things that I can reflect on for the rest of my adult, professional life as choices that were made for the right reasons."

"That's who he is. I remember I saw Matt Damon in an interview with Charlie Rose and he said, ¡®The Apostle should be a primer for all actors.' And it should be required viewing because of the power and the resonance and the complete -- the complete nature of a performance by an actor. And I applauded that. I was by myself, you know, naked and sweating in my apartment."

Broken Trail is a trilogy of sorts for Duvall, coming after Open Range and Lonesome Dove. That last film, the actor says, is the one he's most identified with today and one that stands as a contemporary bible of the genre for real-life cowboys.

"People come up to me on the street and speak about Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove more than The Godfather or any of the other films I was fortunate enough to be in," he marvels. "People always ask, ¡®When will you do another Lonesome Dove,' and I say not for another hundred years, because it's very unique.

---- Film Stew, 2006-01-13