A slow-going cross-country trek, AMC’s first original movie owes a considerable debt to producer-star Robert Duvall, who is such a pleasure to watch as to (somewhat) compensate for the leisurely pace. Modeled after the “Lonesome Dove” series, this earnest Western from producer-director Walter Hill finally arrives at a satisfying conclusion, although the narrative about taciturn men and imperiled women at times seems mired in mud. Strong performances and a looming showdown improve matters in night two, and ultimately it’s a logical companion to the underrated theatrical oater “Open Range,” also starring Duvall, which the cable net premieres the same weekend.
Set in 1898, as the cowboy way is slowly expiring, Duvall plays Print Ritter, an Oregonian herding 500 horses to Wyoming with his nephew, Tom (Thomas Haden Church). Along the way, they acquire a hired hand (Scott Cooper) and then rescue five young Chinese girls — sold into slavery by their families — earmarked to become prostitutes in a local mining camp.
The girls don’t speak English, but their leader, Sun Foy (Gwendoline Yeo), instinctively senses that, however difficult life on the trail promises to be, their future with these kindly horse traders is likely preferable to the potential alternatives. And while Print and Tom grumble about the women impeding their progress, they begin to care about them, with Print humorously numbering them “1” through “5” to help him keep track.
Safeguarding the vulnerable quintet also means running afoul of the madam who purchased them, the colorfully named Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer), and the sadistic ex-con (Chris Mulkey) she enlists to retrieve her property. Adding to his incentive, meanwhile, is a revenge debt toward a proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, Nola (Greta Scacchi), who also falls in with Print and company.
“We didn’t look to save no Orientals and a broken-nosed whore,” Print drawls to Tom. “It just happened.”
As with “Open Range,” “Broken Trail” is too enamored of sweeping pastoral shots of herds roaming the plains, with Canada ably standing in for the late-19th-century West. Also, the male leads are such Marlboro Men their dialogue makes Gary Cooper sound like a relative chatterbox.
Even so, there are lovely moments in the later going and genuine pathos in the fate of the girls, whose frightening lot as strangers in a strange and abusive land becomes the most deftly captured element in Alan Geoffrion’s screenplay. Ditto for Print and Nola’s furtive flirtation — nicely played by Duvall and Scacchi, despite how tired the scenario is.
Given the ratings TNT regularly scored with cowboy made-fors and the passel of vintage Westerns AMC plays on weekends, Hill’s classy production should corral an audience and put the cable net on the map as a provider of original movies. It’s only too bad AMC opted to go the four-hour route, because while this “Trail” ain’t exactly broken, some judicious editing could have fixed it.