Broken Trail

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
Broken Trail Movie Poster Image
Lauded miniseries doesn't glamorize the old West.
  • NR
  • 2006
  • 184 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Respect and equality are a theme in this film.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Robert Duvall's character is almost too good and modern in his attitudes to be true, as he treats the Chinese in gentlemanly fashion and shoots a couple of men on sight just because they're notorious Native American killers. Though he claims to have given up on happiness with females, he's still chivalrous when it counts. The other men in his posse follow in line.


Men and horses shot down. One man hung (off-camera). Men and women are brutally beaten. Cattle branding in closeup. A woman is trampled by stampeding horses.


Prostitution and sexual slavery as a business is a major part of the plot. Besides talk of venereal disease, there are some bosom-bulging tight corsets and brief nudity (not in a typical sexual context, but young Chinese women are inspected by a would-be buyer).


"S--t" is as severe as it gets.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drunken cowboys, in and out of saloons, though some of the imbibing is friendly and social.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that much of the plot concerns prostitution and sexual slavery as a business. Besides talk of venereal disease, there are some bosom-bulging tight corsets and brief nudity glimpsed in a group of young Chinese women as they are being inspected by a seedy client. It is never made glamorous, though. Neither is the depiction of life in the old West. It's shown as rough and often violent -- where a lame horse is summarily shot in the head, not taken to a vet.

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What's the story?

On a journey to sell horses, Prentice Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom (Thomas Haden Church) encounter a wagonload of Chinese girls who will be sold by their abusive, drunken guardian into prostitution. When the man robs the Ritters, Tom tracks him down and hangs him. Prentice promises to protect the terrified women, and the group sets out on a long overland trek. As they journey through Idaho, they meet with tragedy and gather a few additional wayfarers, including a fiddle-player descended from an aristocratic East-coast household, and an English-speaking Chinese man they hire as a translator for the girls. The last person to join their entourage is wife-turned-prostitute Nola (Greta Scacchi) who happens to be fleeing from the same brothel the Chinese girls were destined for, and her murderous outlaw ex-lover is in pursuit with his gang.

Is it any good?

Director Walter Hill takes the Western milieu seriously, seldom sugar-coating or sentimentalizing the bitterness of life on the trail. Instead of a pretty boy, the role of Tom Ritter went to Church, who looks like he was carved from a block of knotty pine.

Broken Trail sheds light on the little-regarded presence of early Chinese immigrants in the American West. The elder Ritter's equanimity toward all races and genders seems a little more like something from the modern era. In lengthy dialogue interludes in the second half of this saga, Prentice explains how his unlucky-in-love personal life has deepened his character (he doesn't understand any women). Kids hoping for more action might get a little restless during these introspective moments.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the authenticity of the old West setting. As opposed to more lighthearted "oaters" like old-time singing-cowboy movies, The Wild, Wild West or Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon, there is mud and dirt on this trail, a horse that develops leg trouble is shot to death, and when gun battles begin the Chinese characters duck and cover -- rather than bust out into kung fu. Do your kids prefer this vision of the West, or Hollywood's standard fantasies? While this is one Western that gives due credit to the large numbers of Chinese settlers in pioneer America, you might mention that blacks (not very visible here) also comprised up to a quarter of all working cowboys. One of the girls in this movie is subjected to the practice of footbinding, which could open up discussions about the devaluation and exploitation of women across cultures.

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