As the opening credits play, cattle moves from one end of the screen to the other. This means two things– we are seeing the vast property of a land baron; and we are seeing it in CinemaScope.
After the credits end, we cut to a prison where young Robert Wagner is being released. He had been incarcerated for three years, and on his way home, he stops off at a government building in town. Inside the lobby, there’s a huge portrait hanging, and he pauses to look at it. It’s the image of Matthew Deveraux (Spencer Tracy), his deceased father. Next, the young man is confronted by a trio of older half-brothers (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman), and it’s not exactly a warm reunion. They have a deal in mind to send him away.
We learn about his relationship with a young girl (Jean Peters), as well as his mother (Katy Jurado), a squaw who went back to live with her people. Interestingly, the character Wagner portrays is named Joe. Five years later on Bonanza, Michael Landon played the half-breed son of a huge ranch owner, and he was also named Joe. Probably the weekly television series was inspired by this panoramic big screen western. And panoramic is the word for it. Filmed on location, BROKEN LANCE is an expansive, scenic and realistic looking outdoor drama.
As we flashback to life at the Deveraux ranch three years earlier, we see Tracy as the imposing patriarch. He’s the center of everything, and his three older sons resent his control over their lives. There’a scene where he metes out a punishment for his two middle sons, after they had been caught rustling his livestock. They’re greedy and twisted in their rebellion. Immediately, we can tell the Deveraux ranch is a giant place with a giant set of problems.
Wagner is not at all like his older siblings; he’s the tender heart of the family. He has some romantic moments with the girl he loves, but because he’s the son of a native woman, obstacles stand in their way. The next morning, there are other issues when old man Deveraux discovers a nearby copper mine is poisoning the water supply. A showdown ensues and in a violent turn of events, gunfire erupts and the mine goes up in flames.
This leads to a lawsuit with the owner of the mine, and in court things only go from bad to worse. Joe has been assigned blame for the standoff that destroyed property and injured many men. As Deveraux watches his youngest boy go off to jail, the three other sons take over the ranch, which they quickly begin to sell off to outsiders. Deveraux is not one to sit idly by and lose everything, so he goes after his worthless offspring to stop them; but he dies while riding the range. What might seem to be a typical 50s western on the surface is something that plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. The long flashback ends, and by this point, we have realized Spencer Tracy’s character is a frontier version of King Lear. There isn’t much left when Robert Wagner comes home– except a score to settle with his brothers for what they did to him and their pa.
BROKEN LANCE was directed by Edward Dmytryk and is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.