“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

Six years had passed since I last saw a movie based upon a William Shakespeare play. Needless to say, I was not that impressed by it. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid another cinematic adaptation of one of the playwright’s works for years. Image my surprise when I discovered that the 1954 movie movie, “BROKEN LANCE” proved to be another.

Although set in the Old West of the 1880s, “BROKEN LANCE” is based upon elements from Shakespeare’s 1606 play, “King Lear”. It is also a remake of the 1949 movie, “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”, but critics have found connections to the play a lot stronger in the 1954 Western. The latter told the story of an Arizona cattle baron named Matt Devereaux, who has tried to raise his four sons – Ben, Mike, Denny and Joe – with the same hard-working spirit that has made him a successful rancher. However, Devereaux had never learned to express affection to his three older sons, as a consequence. His marriage to a Native American woman resulted in a fourth son – the mixed-blood Joe, to whom he was affectionate. Matt’s “tough love” attitude and affection toward Joe led the other three sons to harbor resentment toward their father and racial prejudice toward their half-brother. After disrupting a cattle rustling attempt by his sons, Mike and Denny, Devereaux discovers that 40 of his cattle had died from a polluted stream. He and his sons also discover that a copper mine, located 20 miles away, is responsible for the pollution. Devereaux’s violent reaction to his discovery will not only lead to legal ramifications, but also further disruptions and tragedy.

I have never read “King Lear” or seen any of the screen adaptations of the actual play. Nor have I ever seen “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. So, I have nothing to compare “BROKEN LANCE” with. All I can say that I enjoyed most of the film and was especially impressed by the film’s strong characterizations. Despite its Old West setting, “BROKEN LANCE” is not your typical Western. In fact, it is easy to see that it is basically a character drama. One might add there are plenty of Westerns that feature strong character drama. True. But aside from a minor gunfight and a brawl in one of the movie’s final scenes, this is no real action in “BROKEN LANCE”. This is a drama set in the Old West. I had no problem with this. Why? Because “BROKEN LANCE” is basically a damn good story about the disintegration of a family. What makes “BROKEN LANCE” a tragedy is that Matt Devereaux is responsible. That “hard-working” spirit that led him to become a wealthy cattle baron and dominate his family, also led his three older sons to dislike and resent him. Devereaux’s “spirit” also affected his business operation, took away three years of his youngest son’s life and in the end, even affected his oldest son.

I was also impressed by how the movie handled the topic of racism in this film. Granted, all of the non-white characters in the film seemed ideally likable – something that human beings of all ethnic and racial groups are incapable of being on a 24/7 basis. But at least they were not portrayed as simple-minded or childlike. Joe Devereaux came the closest to being naive, but that was due to his age. And even he developed into a more hardened personality. One of the best scenes that conveyed the racism that permeated in 1880s Arizona Territory featured Matt Devereaux being asked by the Territorial Governor to keep Joe from furthering any romance with the latter’s daughter, Barbara. It struck me as subtle, insidious, ugly and very effective.

The production values for “BROKEN LANCE” struck me as very admirable. Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio that produced and released the film, developed the CinemaScope camera to achieve wide lens shots – especially for their more prominent films between the early 1950s and late 1960s. Joseph MacDonald’s photography of Arizona and use of the CinemaScope camera struck me as very colorful and beautiful. Also adding to the movie’s late 19th Arizona setting were Lyle Wheeler (who won an Oscar for his work on 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”) and Maurice Ransford’s art direction, the set decorations by Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott, and the scenic designs by an uncredited Jack Poplin. I also thought that Travilla’s costume designs for the film greatly added to the movie’s setting . . . especially those designs for the costumes worn by Jean Peters and Katy Jurado.

If there is one aspect of “BROKEN LANCE” that bothered me, it was the film’s last scene. I wish I could explain what happened, but I do not want to reveal any spoilers. Needless to say, I found it vague, unsatisfying and a bit unrealistic. I realize that writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy, along with director Edward Dmytryk, were more or less trying to follow the ending for “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. But in doing so, I think they had failed to consider the film’s Western setting, along with the racial and ethnic makeup of the Joe Devereaux character. Otherwise, I had no real problems with the movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Spencer Tracy was larger than life as the domineering Matt Deveareaux. He has always been one of those performers who can either give a subtle performance, or be very theatrical without chewing the scenery. He managed to be both in “BROKEN LANCE”. I have read a few review of the movie in which some were not that impressed by Robert Wagner’s performance as Deveareaux’s youngest son, Joe. Yes, I could have done with the slight make-up job to indicate Joe’s racial status. But I was impressed by Wagner’s performance. He did a very good job in conveying different aspects of Joe’s personality – from the enthusiastic young man, who is desperate to maintain peace within his family to the embittered man, who finally realizes how much his older half-brothers disliked him. Another excellent performance came Richard Widmark, who portrayed Deveareaux’s oldest son, Ben. There were times when Widmark almost seemed as larger than life as Tracy. Yet, he reigned in his performance a little tighter. But what I really found interesting about Widmark’s performance is that despite his character’s resentment of Deveareaux and racist dislike of Joe, he seemed to have a clear head on his shoulders and an awareness of how business had changed in the later years of the Old West. The only acting Oscar nomination went to Katy Jurado, who portrayed Deveareaux’s second wife, “Señora” Devereaux. I am a little perplexed by this nomination. Granted, she gave a very good performance as a Native American woman trying to maintain peace between her husband and three stepsons. But there was nothing about her performance that I thought deserved an Oscar nod. Frankly, I found her performance in 1952’s “HIGH NOON” a lot more impressive.

Jean Peters portrayed the Governor’s daughter and Joe’s love interest, Barbara. I thought she gave a spirited, yet charming performance. I was also impressed by how Peters conveyed Barbara’s strong-will and open-minded nature in regard to Joe’s Native American ancestry. Remember my comments about that scene between Deveareaux and the Governor? I believe what made this scene particularly effective were the performances of both Tracy and E.G. Marshall as the Governor. In fact, I would say that Marshall’s skillful conveyance of the Governor’s insidious racism in regard to Joe really sold this scene. Although their roles seemed lesser as Deveareaux’s second and third sons Mike and Denny, I thought both Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman gave effective performances. O’Brian’s Mike struck me as an insidious personality, who seemed to hover in the background, watching older brother Ben and their father battle over the family’s fortunes. And Holliman was equally effective as the gutless pushover Denny, who seemed more interested in clinging to whomever could make his life more easy than any resentful feelings toward his father and younger brother. The movie also featured solid performances from Eduard Franz, Carl Benton Reid and Philip Ober.

In the end, I rather liked “BROKEN LANCE” . . . a lot. I knew from my past viewing of the film that it was not a traditional Western, but more of a character-driven drama. And I thought director Edward Dmytryk, along with writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy did a first-rate job of translating William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to this family drama set in the Old West. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner. My only problem with the movie proved to be its last five minutes or so. I found the ending rather vague and lacking any consideration of the Old West setting and the racial background of the Joe Deveareaux character. Otherwise, I no further problems with the film.

“MACBETH” (2006) Review

”MACBETH” (2006) Review

Over the years, a good number of filmmakers, novelists and playwrights have taken William Shakespeare’s plays and presented them in a different setting or with a twist. One such movie that comes to mind is the 1957 Broadway musical, ”WEST SIDE STORY”, which became an Oscar winning 1961 movie. The directors of both the play and the movie took Shakespeare’s ”ROMEO AND JULIET”, set it on the mean streets of Lower East Manhattan and gave it a different ending. Kenneth Branaugh’s 1996 version of ”HAMLET” was set in the late 19th century. And there have been two versions of ”THE TAMING OF THE SHREW” in which one movie was set at a Seattle high school and the other within an African-American family of sisters and their spouses. Director Geoffrey Wright did something similar with his 2006 adaptation of ”MACBETH”, which starred Sam Worthington and Victoria Hill.

In other words, what Wright did was retold the story of Macbeth as a crime story set in modern day Melbourne, Australia. Instead of a Scottish lord, Macbeth was an underboss of a powerful Melbourne gangster named Duncan. After leading Duncan’s gang in a drug deal that ended with the violent deaths of his boss’ rival – Macdonwald, Macbeth found a few pills inside of one of Macdonwald’s nightclubs and partook them. During Macbeth’s drug trip, he learned from three witches dressed as schoolgirls that he would one day assume total control of Duncan’s gang. But his wife, Lady Macbeth dismissed the prophecy, claiming that Macbeth lacked the ambition and drive to take control of the gang from Duncan. But when she learned that the gang leader would be staying overnight at their home, following a party, Lady Macbeth convinced her husband to kill Duncan, frame his bodyguards and assume control of the gang. Which is exactly what happened. After the other gang members elected Macbeth as their new leader, the new gang lord struggled with the suspicions of others, Lady Macbeth’s mental decline and his own paranoia and guilt.

”MACBETH” would have slipped my notice if someone had not mentioned it on a LIVE JOURNAL blog for actor Sam Worthington. And I am glad that someone did. ”MACBETH” turned out to be somewhat better than I had expected. It was not the best film adaptation of a Shakespeare play I have ever seen. But I thought that Wright and actress Victoria Hill (who also served as co-writer) did a solid job retelling the play in a more modern setting. Both Wright and Hill managed to achieve this without a long running time for the movie. They also did a solid job in creating a decent crime story about power, greed and betrayal.

I am certain that some of you have noticed that I have used the word ”solid” a lot to describe the movie. But that is how I feel about it. ”MACBETH” was certainly not a terrible film. However, I would never consider it to be a favorite of mine. I had some problems with it. One, Will Gibson’s photography seemed rather dark and a bit on the gloomy side. Aside from Macbeth’s first meeting with the three witches at a cemetery, most of the movie’s scenes seemed to feature interior shots or a night time setting. I really do not know what to say about John Clifford White’s score. That I barely noticed it? There were times I began to wonder if the movie actually had a score – except in two scenes that featured the party Macbeth held for Duncan and the final sequence featuring the gang’s attack upon Macbeth at his home. Earlier, I had congratulated Wright and Hill for writing a screenplay that did not result in a long running time. However, Wright’s direction still managed to drag the film with occasional slow pacing throughout the movie. Between the minimal score, White’s dim lighting and Wright’s pacing, there were moments when I found it damn hard to stay awake.

The cast seemed pretty solid (ah, there is that word again). I was impressed by the three actresses who portrayed the witches – Chloe Armstrong, Kate Bell and Miranda Nation. They harbored a surprising mixture of sexual allure and menace. Their orgy scene with Worthington seemed . . . hell, I do not know how to describe that sequence. All I can say that it seemed odd. Matt Doran gave an intense performance as Malcolm, son of the murdered Duncan, who had suspected Macbeth for killing his father from the beginning. But I might as well be frank. When it comes to ”MACBETH”, only the actor in the titled role and the actress portraying Lady Macbeth matter to me.

I would have never considered Sam Worthington as someone to portray a Shakespearian role. Honestly, I never would. Look, I am well aware that he is a talented actor with a strong screen presence. But he simply never struck me as the type to do Shakespeare. Not ten years ago. Yet, he did an admirable job in his portrayal of the underboss who managed to get over his head following his coup d’etat against his boss, thanks to his wife’s ambitions and his own paranoia. Mind you, there were times I thought Worthington seemed a bit too young for the role. He must have been 28 or 29 years old when he shot this film. And I must admit that I did not find his portrayal of Macbeth’s descent into madness in his last scenes particularly convincing. I believe he could have given a more credible performance today. He has the talent and more importantly, the maturity to do justice to this role. However, Worthington still did a pretty good job. And he must have been one of the few actors who were not inclined to perform Shakespeare in front of a camera at the top of his lungs – like many other performers seemed inclined to do. For that I am eternally grateful.

And I am also grateful to Victoria Hill for refraining from indulging in any acting histrionics. Like Worthington, she managed to spout her Shakespeare without indulging in any theatrical hamminess. But I would also like to add that I found her performance as Lady Macbeth to be mesmerizing. Honestly. I really enjoyed the subtle manner in which her Lady Macbeth drew the lead character into a murder scheme that would prove to be overwhelming for them both. In fact, one of her best scenes featured Lady Macbeth manipulating Macbeth into committing murder. Another favorite scene focused upon her reaction to Macbeth’s failure to originally kill Duncan’s bodyguards. Again, she managed to convey a great deal of emotion and passion without any histrionics. But my favorite scene featured the one in which her Lady Macbeth not only helped her husband carry out the coup d’etat against Duncan, she seemed to be in control of the entire operation. And Hill performed that entire scene with an interesting, yet complex mixture of cool resourcefulness and wariness. I can honestly say that she probably gave the best performance in the movie. She seemed more suited for her role than Worthington did for his.

I will never consider ”MACBETH” to be a personal favorite of mine. I rather doubt that I would ever have an inclination to watch it again. Will Gibson’s photography struck me as a bit too dark and gloomy – probably unnecessarily so. John Clifford White’s minimal score nearly put me to sleep. And so did Geoffrey Wright’s pacing of the film. And despite Sam Worthington’s solid performance, he did seem a bit too young for the title role of Macbeth. If he had done the movie in the past ten years, he would have been perfect in the role.

However, I must admit that Wright managed to do decent job in transforming the story’s setting from medieval Scotland to the gang lands of Melbourne. None of the cast members indulged in histrionic acting as many other actors tend to do, while performing Shakespeare in front of a camera. Worthington still managed to give a good performance. And he was supported by a superb performance by Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth. In the end, I can honestly say that this version of ”MACBETH” was not a bad movie.