Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Family Discord in Edward Dmytryk's "Broken Lance"

The 1954 Western Broken Lance is a curious film that is both overly familiar and more nuanced than it first appears.

Father Tracy and sons Holliman, O'Brien, Widmark, and Wagner.
The plot focuses on the friction between cattle baron Spencer Tracy and three of his four sons (Richard Widmark, Hugh O'Brien, and Earl Holliman). It'd be easy to paint the brotherly trio as the film's villains and youngest son Robert Wagner as the hero. But the reality is that Richard Widmark's bitter son is smarter than his father; he understands the necessity for change and embraces it. His father, meanwhile, adheres to doing business the same way as usual--by bulldozing his way through all obstacles.

Wagner (sporting a Fabian hair-do) and Tracy.
Adding to the family discord, Tracy favors youngest son Robert Wagner with the fatherly affection he denied the other three. They grew up as he was building his empire. They toiled alongside their then-widowed father from an early age, rarely earning even a word of praise. Thus, their acrimony is understandable to an extent and it's hard to fault them when they take advantage of their father's folly.

As for their younger sibling, he has his heart in the right place. However, he is also too eager to play the hero. When Wagner's character rashly takes the blame for his father's actions and winds up in prison, it's hard to feel sorry for him. He also seems too eager to play the martyr willing to take the punishment for his dead old dad.

Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers.
Yet, while the family relationships hold one's attention for awhile, Broken Lance can't overcome a pervasive feeling of familiarity. Perhaps, that's because you've seen House of Strangers, a 1949 film noir written by Philip Yordan and starring Edward G. Robinson as the headstrong family patriarch and Richard Conte as the good brother.

Just five years later, Yordan transplanted the same plot to the Old West and won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, for Broken Lance. Yes, he won an Oscar for a writing a story based on a screenplay written for a previous film! This gets even more interesting, because some reliable sources consider both films to be adapted from Jerome Weidman's 1941 novel I'll Never Go There Anymore. Of course, one could also argue the influence of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Tracy and Katy Jurado.
The strong cast--which also includes Jean Peters and Katy Jurado--fails to inject much-needed excitement. Spencer Tracy could play a take-charge cattle baron in his sleep. As his wife--the calm voice of reason--Jurado earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Director Edward Dmytryk, whom I tend to associate with film noir (e.g., Cornered) and tight dramas, sets the action against some breathtaking vistas. He teamed with Tracy and Wagner again two years later for The Mountain.

This was his sixth film following his return to the U.S. in 1951 after four years overseas. He left the country after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as one of the "Hollywood Ten." When Dmytryk returned to the States, he was arrested and served six months in a West Virginia prison before agreeing to name names before the HUAC in 1951. In his 1996 book Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Holywood Ten, he explains his change of heart about testifying: "[If] I were going to be a martyr, I wanted the privilege of choosing my martyrdom. . . ."

I met Dmytryk in the late 1970s when he gave a guest lecture at Indiana University. He signed his name alongside the entry about him in my copy of The Filmgoer's Companion.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon. Check out all the entries on the blogathon schedule by clicking here.


  1. I'll readily confess that I like a lot of Dmytryk's movies: Murder, My Sweet (with Dick Powell) is my favorite of the Philip Marlowe films, and I even have a grudging like for Lance, because of the presence of Widmark and Jurado.

    But I prefer House of Strangers (I think it's a really underrated noir) to Lance...and to be honest, I was never all that comfortable with Dmytryk finking on his friends regardless of his martyrdom. Great job, Rick.

    1. Well, he left the U.S. at the peak of his career, returned years later, and was sent to prison. I'm not sure how I would have reacted in those circumstances, so I'm not one to judge.

  2. Interesting piece, Rick. I haven't seen Broken Lance (or House of Strangers), though I've seen quite a few of Dmytryk's films and liked most. As with Ivan, though, I'm uneasy about those who named names.

  3. Great review! I've never seen this movie, but I'm putting at the top of my must-watch list.

  4. Well, this supports my theory that every story can be made into a western. Interesting post, Rick. So glad that many of those who were blacklisted did manage to work again; so sad that so much of their personal and professional life was stolen.

    1. How wife and I were watching an episode of THE RIFLEMAN last night and I commented that any story could be adapted to the Western genre.

  5. I enjoy Dmytryk's work most often in those small, tighter movies you mentioned. Although, I have an abiding fondness for Warlock and The Caine Mutiny. I run hot and cold on Broken Lance, but definitely hot on House of Strangers.

    It is very interesting how so many went through that dreadful blacklist and back out the other side again. What did those politicians accomplish?

  6. I too favor House of Strangers over Broken Lance. I always thought Dmytryk had an uneven career, Murder My Sweet. Crossfire, House of Strangers, The Caine Mutiny on the plus side and films like The Carpetbaggers, Where Love Has Gone,Anzio and Bluebeard on the minus. For me, Broken Lance falls somewhere in the middle.

  7. I haven't seen either film, but the story does sound like the old Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours, where the youngest son is favoured by the father and sold into slavery & ends up in prison, etc. You've made me want to see both these films!

  8. Ilike Dmytrick's movies although I heven't seen these two. I enjoyed your coverage of them His situation was dificult with HUAC, though one of those he named was Jules Dassin. Dassin had a rough go of it after fleeing the U.S. I'll be posting about him and Rififi soon.

  9. The writing Oscar-related facts are fascinating. Despite the familiarity of the story here I enjoy the film in, I admit, because I can watch Spencer Tracy whistle for two hours without a problem, but also because the film is beautiful to look at. Interesting choice for the blogathon and an enjoyable read.


  10. Great article! I read about the link between Broken Lance and King Lear, but not about the link with House of Strangers - one connection that makes total sense.