'Broken Trail': Rough-Edged Western Realism

The AMC cable network miniseries Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, and helmed by veteran Western director Walter Hill, debuts this Sunday. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein says the series delivers great performances and rough-edged realism — "you can almost smell the leather."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Actor Robert Duvall has played a cowboy many times in his long career. And now the Oscar winner is back in the saddle again for a new four hour miniseries called Broken Trail. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

A good old fashioned western is not to be left to mere amateurs. Credit Broken Trail for having some of the genre's masters in its corner. Duvall has played the crusty cowpoke so many times he could do it in his sleep. And director Walter Hill is a veteran of the HBO series Deadwood, TV's reining current western.

But if Deadwood is a radical re-imagination of the form, Broken Trail is more like a conventional tribute. In it, Duvall plays Print Ritter, a 19th century cowboy riding herd from Oregon to Wyoming. This being the Wild West, danger lurks at every turn, as in this scene in which Ritter faces off with what in those days you might call a varmint.

(Soundbite of miniseries Broken Trail)

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (As Print Ritter) Hold up there, mister. Hold up, mister. Don't I know you? What's your name?

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Character) My name's my own business. I suggest you tend to yours. Will you give me the road, sir?

Mr. DUVALL: Hold on. I know who you are.

Unidentified Man: I go by several names. I doubt any of them are your concern. If you refuse to let me pass, you'll soon learn a few of them.

WALLENSTEIN: Ritter soon crosses paths with another traveling cowboy herding something other than livestock: Chinese women forced into prostitution. The slave-trader Fender(ph), played chillingly by James Russo, tries to be sociable with Ritter's posse in this scene.

(Soundbite of miniseries Broken Trail)

Mr. JAMES RUSSO (Actor): (As Fender) Gentlemen, as you can see, I have purchased at a great expense, mind you, five exotic virgins from the Celestial Empire. I'm headed out to a mining camps where those men out there will pay good money to deflower one of these little lotus blossoms.

WALLENSTEIN: To no surprise Ritter comes to the rescue of these women who join him on the journey. But when the owner of the brothel they belong to catches wind of the detour, they're on the run. And of course, a violent reckoning is inevitable.

Broken Trail is a spare, somber saga. The miniseries is helped by a stirring performance by Thomas Hayden Church, who plays Ritter's nephew and sidekick. If you're expecting the actor to reprise his hilarious Oscar-nominated turn in the movie Sideways, get ready for the polar opposite.

Church is as laconic and weathered as Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. If nothing else, Broken Trail is a great display of this actor's versatility. But the true star of the film is director Hill, who keeps a tight rein on a sprawling story that barely wanders over its four hour running time. His eye for the details of the Old West brings this period piece to life. I swear, there were a few scenes where I could smell the gun powder and leather.

So with the end in sight for HBO's Deadwood, the TV western is a dying breed. And that alone makes Broken Trail a worthwhile journey.

CHADWICK: The miniseries Broken Trail debuts Sunday on the cable channel AMC. Our TV critic Andrew Wallenstein is a co-host of the show Square Off on the TV Guide Channel.

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