Cut off as a feature film due to financing complications, “Broken Trail” once looked like a project all too well titled.
But reconceived as a miniseries behind director Walter Hill, writer Alan Geoffrion and star Robert Duvall, the turn-of-the-century Western completed its journey in fine style, earning boffo ratings for AMC, three Golden Globe nominations and a Directors Guild award for Hill.
The end justified the means, but Hill still fretted along the way, especially over the script being substantial enough to justify two nights of primetime television.
“We were not confident,” Hill recalls. “We were certainly under the impression that with what we had to shoot, we’d never get to the 180 minutes.”
But pages were added and put to good use, particularly in rounding out the story of five Chinese women whom horsemen played by Duvall and Thomas Haden Church rescued from sexual enslavement.
“I felt if it had been purely the story of the cowboys and the horse drive, it would have been probably an interesting story, but it would not have gone to where we got it to go,” Hill says. “But it was the (expansion) of the idea of the Chinese girls that seemed to me to make it something very special.
“(To take) average decent folks that are very much consumed with their own lives — they are facing economic catastrophe if they don’t succeed in the horse drive — and then to throw them into this position of social responsibility, something they’re totally untrained for, over these young women, and forcing them to do the right thing … was the stuff of good drama.”
The shooting script of “Broken Trail” ended up at 142 pages, still on the short side for a 180-minute project, but Hill had just the right amount to allow for a Western’s leisurely pacing while keeping the wagon wheels turning. He pronounces himself “perfectly satisfied” with the film’s evolution from its feature origins.
“I don’t feel that going to the miniseries format was a compromise,” Hill concludes. “I think it made it a better drama than it would have been.”