- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

What’s Robert Duvall doing in a made-for-cable movie? Why, setting a new standard of excellence for the medium on a rather unlikely outlet.

AMC, the channel that offers such dubious “classics” as “Inspector Gadget” and “Jaws: The Revenge,” hits the bull’s-eye with its first original miniseries. “Broken Trail” echoes the best of the modern Western without reinventing it from the dust up. It’s unflinching in its brutality, yet unafraid of being sentimental. The film celebrates decency while reminding viewers of the costs associated with such stances.

If “Broken Trail” is not a classic, it’s still a notch far above most made-for-television projects. And we’ll take any excuse to deposit Mr. Duvall back in the saddle again, where he rode so tall in both “Lonesome Dove” and “Open Range.”

Part one of the two-parter, inspired by a true story, begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, with part two to follow at the same time Monday.

The year is 1897, and leathered cowboy Print Ritter (Mr. Duvall) must herd 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming. The job should set him up comfortably for his remaining years, but it also lets him team with his estranged nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church). Tom’s mother — Print’s sister — wrote him out of her will over an old grudge, and the pain from the split remains etched on Tom’s square jaw.

They soon cross paths with a cretin trying to deliver five young Chinese women into prostitution. Neither Print nor Tom fashions himself as a crusader, but they can’t stand idly by. They rescue the women and take the group along with them on their journey.

It’s an instant culture clash, and the language barrier appears insurmountable at first. Print knows people, if not the ways of romance, and he quickly establishes a bond with the quintet.

The cowboys’ good deed doesn’t go unnoticed. The “owners” of the women hire a gunslinger (Chris Mulkey) to set after Print and company, setting the stage for the expected gunplay at the saga’s end.

Mr. Mulkey’s Ed “Big Ears” Bywater is given too little screen time, but his presence permeates “Trail,” much like the real-world dangers haunting our heroes.

“Broken Trail” is far from another shooting gallery, despite the lead slinging. Director/producer Walter Hill (“The Long Riders”) lets things slow to a crawl, arguably too often, but the measured pace lets us slip inside the characters’ lives until we can smell the grease fat spit from the campfires.

These are kinder, gentler cowpokes, but don’t mistake them for pushovers. Tom can hand stitch a wound and cause a few fresh ones with his firearms, and Print is never more fierce than when defending his impromptu brood.

The film’s Canadian backdrops provide a glorious substitute for the Old West itself, and Mr. Hill’s camerawork takes full advantage of the letterboxed format. Even better is the score, co-written by “Smile” collaborator Van Dyke Parks. It’s a moody, elegiac piece that further elevates the film above its television roots.

“Broken Trail” couldn’t rally enough funds to become a motion picture, or so the production’s back story goes. The theater’s loss is AMC’s gain — and that of anyone willing to give the aged Western genre a fresh look.

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