Broken Trail - Western Women

Most westerns are about men and the wide open spaces. With Broken Trail, the story is just as much about the women who try to carve out a living in the old west.

Robert Duvall stars as Ritter, an aging cowboy whose sister just died, leaving him the ranch. He decides to head out with his nephew Tom, played by Thomas Haden Church, to drive a herd of mustang up north to make some money. Both men are loners, lifetime cowboys, and quite content in the wide open countryside.

Almost immediately they run into a slimy man who is transporting five young Chinese girls up to a whorehouse. After a theft and a bit of tracking, the man is dead and Ritter and Tom now are responsible for the five girls.

On one hand, the rest of the story is very predictable - several shoot-outs, rough women, hard whiskey, lots of horses and gorgeous sunsets over a mountain range. On the other hand, the base of the story here is about the characters, and how they interact. The men take life as it comes - they appreciate the freedom of the open range, they try to do what's right when they run into a situation. The women try to grab at chances when they can. When Nora (Greta Scacchi), a whore in town, sees that these men have good hearts, she immediately asks to ride along with them. They of course agree.

I really enjoyed the miniseries and definitely recommend watching it; there is a lot of meaning here. The landscapes and visual artistry were stunning. I loved the glowing sunsets, the misty mornings, the grimy mud of the branding area and the simple enjoyment of a family meal setting. I thought the music was great and reminded me very much of Serenity - a moving mixture of western and Chinese styles. I loved the small touches, such as when Tom's shirt needs mending and soon he has a lovely oriental blue square on his traditional western outfit.

I do have to comment, though, that the writing is extremely focused in nature and has a message it wants to convey - so it twists the plot and situation around to make that message very clear.

We start in the "selection area" for the Chinese girls, where they are evaluated by body shape and virginity. There are almost voyeuristic scenes of bare breasts and pubic areas being probed. There aren't any subtitles used for the Chinese girls for the first half of the movie, emphasizing their isolation. After those girls, the only woman we encounter is the whore that joins them. The whore is worried about getting older and older and ending up at the "hog ranch" - where old prostitutes go when nobody else will have them. There's also of course a madam who treats her girls like cheap commodities.

In the meantime, the men have the money, the freedom, and do all the rescuing. The women cower, scream, and cower some more, and we watch graphic rape scenes that last right until the men barge in to rescue them. There are also comments about how these men are quite unique in that they cared enough to help the girls.

This was set in the 1890s - that wasn't too long ago. We have diaries and books dating from those years. Sure, some women were prostitutes. Sure, some men were nasty and cruel to women. However, the movie makes it seem like all women were prostitutes ... and that all men were callous and women-users. It took some suspension of disbelief to sit through some of the lines given.

I don't want to minimize the problems of women, or of the Old West. Still, though, there were women who ran stores, who taught at school, who were very respected in their communities. There were many, many men who courted women, treated them with respect, who would defend a woman's honor. It is just as disrespectful of the women who were carving a life for themselves as it is of the men who stood at their side, to lay out a landscape that is so biased.

I find it wonderful, of course, that we discuss the problems of prostitution - the problems of girls sold into slavery by their families. It's important to contrast the freedom the men had of choosing their path in life and following it despite family demands against the few if any choices the women had in how their life was directed. Still, I would find the discussion much easier if it was presented in a more balanced way, instead of making the tale incredibly biased to give a single message and atmosphere.

Broken Trail will be on AMC on Sunday, June 25th and Monday, June 26th 2006.

Photos supplied by Chris Large / AMC and used with permission.

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