Originally broadcast as a two part television mini series, Walter Hill’s ‘Broken Trail’ is a three hour western that works just as well as a feature film. The critical and commercial success of the HBO western series ‘Deadwood’ has seemed to help reignite a cycle of westerns that have ranged from conventional mainstream films like ‘3:10 to Yuma’ to more radical departures from the genre like Ang Lee’s Oscar winning ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Alongside stalwarts like Clint Eastwood, the often overlooked producer-writer-director Walter Hill is another figure that has worked intermittently to keep alive what many today consider to be somewhat of a dormant and exhausted genre. The criticism of exhaustion may actually hold some ground when scrutinising the recent cycle of westerns as many of them, though appear from the outside to be quite different, are in fact reworking familiar conventions. Perhaps the major factor that has helped audiences and critics to analyse new westerns like ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is largely the star presence of popular, mainstream Hollywood actors like Brad Pitt who would traditionally steer clear off such a tired and unmarketable genre. Interestingly enough it is television that has repeatedly helped to refresh the western genre and both Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood were graduates from popular TV western series before they reinvented the genre for a contemporary counter culture audience.
Walter Hill’s excursion into television land with the violent, foul mouthed ‘Deadwood’ series was a cause for celebration yet in fact Hill was merely exploring further a lifelong authorial obsession with a genre that he certainly had helped to maintain its relevance with audiences. Though Walter Hill takes his inspiration from film makers like ‘Howard Hawks’ and ‘Don Siegel’ and has proven himself as being able to successfully work across a broad range of genres from science fiction to film noir, it is the western genre that he has repeatedly come back to explore, managing to look at old myths in new ways. Starting with ‘The Long Riders’ in 1980, Hill would go on to make a number of noticeable and strikingly unconventional westerns like ‘Extreme Prejudice (1987)’, a reworking of Peckinpah’s classic revisionist western ‘The Wild Bunch’. He would return to the western much later in 1993 with ‘Geronimo’ and ‘Will Bill’ in 1995; both of these films refused to romanticise mythical and historically significant icons of the west. In 1996, Hill’s fascination with Japanese cinema saw him remake Yojimbo as ‘Last Man Standing’ with the stoic, dialogue-less Bruce Willis in the main lead. None of these films did particularly well at the box office and therefore it is not surprising that it would take Walter Hill over six years to revisit his favourite genre but this time in the form of a television series, the HBO produced ‘Deadwood’. Admittedly, Walter Hill’s oeuvre is somewhat inconsistent and he has directed his fair share of terrible films but nevertheless what makes him a worthy film maker and one who should be considered an important American auteur is his relationship with the western genre.
‘Broken Trail’ is probably the closest Hill will ever come to making a film in the vein of John Ford. It is a fairly conventional western with a predictable set of outcomes and unfolds at a leisurely pace whilst keeping one eye firmly on the aesthetic pleasures offered by the magnificent wide screen cinematography. What makes ‘Broken trail’ different to many other westerns made recently by Hollywood is the unusually difficult subject matter. It looks at an aspect of the west that has never really been dealt with before which is the treatment of enslaved Chinese women who in the 1880s were being shipped across the country to eventually serve as prostitutes. In that sense, this is clearly a revisionist western and throwback to the 70s, challenging traditional thematic preoccupations but simultaneously finding formulaic comforts in the idea of a road movie unfolding through the eyes of an aging cowboy (Robert Duvall) and his uneasy relationship with his nephew (Thomas Hayden Church). The idea of settling down and being chased by a gang of sadistic outlaws are elements overly familiar to us, echoing the mythologizing sentiments of John Ford’s ambiguous view of the west. Walter Hill is definitely within the twilight phase of his directorial career and his on going contributions to the genre adds weight to the argument that this is a genre worthy of longevity as it continues to speak to us about the state of American society and its past in ways that most genres cannot. From Robert Duvall, a 78 year old veteran, what you get is an incomparable level of grace and consistency; this man was simply born to play a cowboy.