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July 25, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | July 25, 2008 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Broken Trail, AMC’s 2006 Western miniseries featuring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. Broken Trail is another successful building block in Robert Duvall’s monument to the gruff ol’ cowhand of the American West. After Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Geronimo: An American Legend, Tender Mercies, and this recent AMC installment, Robert Duvall is to ornery ranch hands what Humphrey Bogart was to trench-coated detectives.

Beverage Consumed: Once again, something for which I cannot find a name, a concoction of equal parts vanilla-infused vodka (in this case, Stoli Vanil) and amaretto, served on the rocks with a cinnamon stick for stirring and adding flavor. Before you ask if my vagina hurts, this relates to a boozing situation of which alabamapink reminded me a few weeks ago: that situation in which one must rummage through the dregs of a depleted bar to find a suitable libation. For ‘bama, this was a cleanup run through the scattered odd bits of her stock, in anticipation of an externally imposed Prohibition.

Well, thanks, ‘bama, for jinxing me through my idiot subconscious. Through a confluence of satanically depraved coincidences, we ran out of gin, whiskey, and plain vodka within a 48-hour period, after already running without a few other top shelf choices for a couple of weeks, e.g., Irish whiskey and blended scotch. (We do keep several crates of bourbon in the Apocalypse Kit, but they are surrounded by a cocoon of buffer cardboard in case of an earthquake.) The only beer in the fridge was Negra Modela, which is not suitable for Happies, and I wanted a cocktail anyway. My bar may be slightly better stocked than some; any “dregs” situation that might occur still affords at least a few choices beyond the nightmare scenario of selecting between (a) partially rancid Slovakian rutabaga liqueur left by a roommate and (b) the fermented yak’s milk your brother sent you from his Mongolia trip.

Hangover List Update: Out of the limited choices in the foregoing scenario, a couple of stronger flavors were technically available but eliminated because of an unfortunate “lagging hangover” situation. The Lagging Hangover is the one that hits you mid-afternoon or later on the day after. You wake up feeling OK, a little tired maybe, then around noon the head starts detaching, the shoulders start hurting, the eyes dry out, and everything feels about three seconds behind. I find this one often follows a night where someone smoking grass was sitting close to you. Really close. Like maybe in the same chair. Or if you didn’t sleep long enough or didn’t rehydrate in the morning. In any event, a brusque bit of business like Lagavulin was not solving any problems.

So. Midori, cherry brandy, Sambuca? No, no, and emphatically no. This went on for a couple of minutes before I picked up separately and set down together the bottles of vanilla-infused Stoli and Desarano amaretto. Hmm. Following my instincts, which are decent in this area, I quickly mixed up a small shaker of the two, then stirred up a glass with a cinnamon stick, one of the sweetened kind one uses for stirring mulled wine. Plopping in some ice and the cinnamon as a garnish, I commenced my viewing.

(I’ve seen variations on this theme on the internet with additional ingredients, such as one that sounded delicious with strawberries and cream pureed together with the booze. Alas, this genre violates my rule about how much preparation is permitted on my part to make a cocktail. I do not blend.)

Summary of Action: There’s precious little left to say about Robert Duvall at this point. He knows what he’s good at, does a healthy amount of it, and occasionally takes a daring role like the titular dancing assassin in Assassination Tango. When Texas Ranger Augustus “Gus” McCrae galloped into our cowboy fantasies nearly twenty years ago, Duvall became one of those actors who exists in our heads as his “home” character, the character he was born to play. Godfather or no Godfather, when someone says the word “cowboy” to me, the most likely image to spring to mind is grizzled Gus, lazily riding out of sight over a rolling prairie ridge, only to speed right back into view with an arrow in his leg and an Indian war party on his heels.

Duvall played nearly the same character in 2003’s Open Range, a well-reviewed, commercially successful film directed by Kevin Costner that seemed to fade into obscurity after a year or two. As the crusty old cowhand Gus might have become if not for that gangrenous leg incident, Duvall’s Boss Spearman pairs with gunhand Charley Waite (Costner) to fight off Michael Gambon’s brazenly vicious Irish cattle baron. (If “gambon” wasn’t a linguistic variant for “ham” before Open Range, it sure as hell was after.) Open Range features a masterfully staged climactic shootout scene that is one of the best of any Western I’ve seen, plus a surprisingly touching romance between Costner and Annette Bening as aging frontier dwellers who never quite managed to settle down.

In Broken Trail, Gus aka Boss takes on another alias, that of Prentice “Print” Ritter. Ritter works as — wait for it — an aging, ornery cattleman in 1898 Oregon, looking to move a herd of horses to Wyoming for a nice payoff so that he can buy his own ranch. As the first of the two movie-length installments begins, Ritter tracks down long-estranged nephew Tom Harte, played by Thomas Haden Church, to help with driving the horses to market. Accompanied by Harte’s friend Heck, they set out with the herd but are soon diverted on a rescue mission to liberate five young Chinese women being transported to a slave existence as prostitutes. After adding a wandering cook and an aging saloon girl, Print and Tom find themselves heading a small menagerie of a cattle drive and being pursued by a gang of vicious outlaws sent to retrieve the girls.

In terms of a plot and themes, Broken Trail is not a groundbreaking or profound Western, but it’s an enjoyable movie because of the goodwill brought to the table by the two leads, Duvall and Church, and because the acting is solid across the board. The villain is convincingly brutal, the difficulties of trail and town life are brought home with good cinematography and scene staging, and the cultural and emotional entanglements are handled with blunt, gentle straightforwardness. Broken Trail is a sincere, character-driven Western, with the linear plot serving primarily to move the relationships along, though there are some interesting action sequences.

In particular, Church shines in projecting a credible mix of courage, resolve, and fear in situations in which he take extreme actions in self-defense, at one point killing for the first time and at another taking on multiple opponents by himself in an intense gun battle to save Duvall and their young female charges. As stoic Tom becomes acquainted with the near-stranger who happens to be his uncle, in scenes played with gravity and restraint by Church, the development of their relationship provides a grounding emotional theme. As they settle uneasily into a mentor relationship, they move from being business associates first to something substantially more complicated and trusting. And, of course, romance blooms in predictable places for these cowboys, including Church’s nearly unspoken bonding with one of the Chinese women, causing conflicts that, while somewhat formulaic, are still engaging examples of comfortable tropes of the genre, along with a handful of twists and tweaks here and there that provide a few “Ah-ha!” moments to break up the pacing.

If you like Duvall or Church, and particularly if you enjoy Westerns, Broken Trail more than justifies a look. The scenery is ruggedly beautiful but not idealized, and the characters are filmed as believable turn-of-the-century frontier folk, the men scruffy and dirty with their handlebar moustaches and trail-dusty work clothes, and the women struggling to project a sliver of femininity through fading dresses, loose strands of hair, and the grime of hard work.

How the Pairing Held Up: Reasonably well, all things considered. Vanilla vodka and amaretto is not a bad little cocktail if you’re in a corner, and it could form the basis for something more enjoyable with a little experimentation.

Tastes Like: An old-fashioned doughnut baked with rum icing with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Overall Rating: Seven out of eleven dusty boots.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

Men Are Gonna Get Killed Here Today, Sue, and I'm Gonna Kill 'Em.

Broken Trail: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton

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