By Jae-Ha Kim
September 2, 2006
The lives of two stoic cowboys and five abused Chinese women become intertwined in Walter Hill’s sprawling miniseries Broken Trail. Print Ritter (Academy Award winner Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways) agree to deliver a herd of 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming. Along the way, they rescue the young women–most of them still just girls–who’re being transported to a brothel to have their virginity auctioned off.
When the madam sees she is about to lose the girls, she screams at Tom, “What about my property?” He shouts back, “That’s the price of being a capitalist, lady.”
Unable to overcome the language barrier, Print assigns numbers to the girls. Number 3, Sun Foy (Gwendoline Yeo, Desperate Housewives) is the most fearless and perceptive of them. Though the others don’t want to be called Number 4–an unlucky numeral in their homeland–Ye Fung (Olivia Cheng), the most tragic of the group, doesn’t care. Targeted for her beauty, she is brutally raped twice and finds herself unable to overcome the trauma. The number suits her, in her mind. Along the way, Print and Tom rescue Nola Johns (Greta Scacchi), the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold, who was forced into prostitution after her husband died.
The cinematography is gorgeous as the camera sweeps over the lush landscape (the Canadian Rockies subbing in for wild West of the late 1800s) and Hill does a formidable job of pacing this 3-hour drama with just the right balance of dialogue and action. For Duvall, Broken Trail is the last piece to his Western trilogy, which started with the miniseries Lonesome Dove followed by the feature film Open Range. He is instantly likeable as a father figure and the viewer never doubts that his intention for the girls is honorable.
As for Haden Church, he has never been as appealing as he is in this role. Gruff and flawed, he softens when he exchanges shy glances with Sun Foy. The trek is long and hard and the unlikely band of travelers will face much hardship. If not as satisfying as the rich, detailed Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail makes up for it with a wonderful storyline and some fine acting by all involved. As for the conclusion, it may surprise some viewers who are expecting a more traditional version of the happy ending.