One catalyst for my rekindled interest in riverfront property is the film Broken Trail and Siam Bend. In this 1898 frontier epic, Prentice Ritter, (played by Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte, drive a herd of 500 mustangs from Oregon to Sheridan, Wyoming. Along the trail they encounter a group of Chinese girls who’ve been sold into a life of prostitution and are being carted off to Rocky Mountain mining camps by the conniving Captain Billy Fender. “A man who sins while drunk shall pay when sober.” Fender’s fate is sealed by his own words as the ‘sobered-up’ scoundrel soon dangles at the end of Tom’s rope.
‘Uncle Print’ and nephew Tom (Thomas Haden Church) are accompanied on the horse drive by Henry ‘Hank’ Gilpin (Scott Cooper), an educated adventurer who ‘fiddles’ his way into the drama. The chivalrous cowboys become protectors to the girls after realizing that ‘hungry wolves’ — Big Rump Kate (Rusty Schwimmer) and her ravenous gold-miner clientele — would otherwise devour them.
What is the reference to Siam Bend (my blog URL title) you ask? There are several gorgeous sunrise and sunset scenes by the Snake River in Wyoming. In one instance, Prentice and Nola Johns (Gretta Scacchi) are sitting by the flowing waters on a serene night. Nola asks about the women in “Mr Ritter’s” life and Print reveals that “Ah, well, there’ve been a few” but true ‘abiding love’ seems to be reserved “only for a lucky few”… and he does not count himself as one of the fortunates. Nola challenges that belief, and Print laughs; “I have about as much chance of finding ‘that gal’ as I do becoming the King of Siam.” Later in the film Print is faced with the choice of taking Nola as his life partner or sending her off to chaperone the young Celestials (Chinese girls). Ritter has grown accustomed to the lonesome cowboy lifestyle and he opts to send Nola on to San Francisco with his surrogate daughters. Print later buys some ranch land at the very spot on the Snake River where he and Nola dipped their toes in the water. A special place he named Siam Bend. The King of Siam indeed!
There are many life-changing ‘which fork in the road?’ moments in Broken Trail … Tom takes his uncle’s offer and embarks on a risky new venture — the ‘horse bid-ness’ … Nola jumps aboard the wagon and escapes her life servicing dirty gold-miners … Print Ritter bids Nola adieu and stays on his solitary ‘bachelor’ path … and Sun Fu (Gwendoline Yeo) summons inner courage by exiting the stagecoach bound for San Francisco, and chooses to start a new life with Tom in Wyoming.
In Broken Trail’s final moments (fast-forward to 1912) you see an aged Print Ritter sitting by the fire in his cabin and later by the River (Siam Bend) reading Nola’s letters. These are poignant scenes. Nola, through her written words (conveyed via voice over) expresses her gratitude and updates Print on the progress of the ‘girls’ (Ghee Moon and Ging Wa);
“They have grown into wonderful young ladies … I see them often and they always ask of you. Promise me you will not laugh at an old woman when I tell you that I still dream of the time when I splashed my feet in the water with you … There are so many things someone wishes they might change about their lives … I want to say that it is you and you alone that will abide in me in my final hour. Thank you Mr. Ritter for giving me back my life … even if I could not share it with you.”
Nola’s letter touches Print deeply. As he reflects, a sense of regret is etched upon his face. ‘What might have been?’ Without uttering a word, Print’s eyes speak volumes and you can almost read his thoughts (a quote from earlier in the film);
“I get rousted out of my sleep sometimes… I find there’s something frightening ’bout that hour of the night ’cause there ain’t no foolin’ yourself ’bout what you done or what you hadn’t done with your life.”
Setting and Cinematography: The riverfront scenes in Broken Trail were visually stunning. There were several wide-angle shots along the Snake River in Wyoming with the Tetons in the background. There were also many scenes showing the Canadian Rockies in the background. This change in geography does not detract … only those with no imagination would find fault.
Broken Trail was primarily filmed at the CL Ranch outside of Calgary, Alberta. The Ranch also has its own ‘authentic’ frontier town where Lonesome Dove and many other westerns were filmed. Here is a bit more on > CL Ranch History.
Since much of the production was filmed at the CL, I am guessing that several river scenes were taken on nearby Bragg Creek, Jumping Pound Creek and Bow River, with the Rockies and Kananaskis country in the background. See general > location
Sidebar: Just a bit ‘up river’ from many Broken Trail river scene locations is Bragg Creek’s Elbow Falls… the shooting location for Bourne Legacy’s opening scene where Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) emerges from the icy river.
There are many reviews that do better justice to Broken Trail than I can here. Suffice to say, I found the production and the cinematography to be superb! A must see if you’re a fan of westerns and the great outdoors. Amazing sound and picture quality on BluRay!
- Go to the official Broken Trail site for more > photos
- See also Oliva Cheng’s website
- John Hodson’s > review of Broken Trail
- Read also Alan Geoffrion’s account of > how the Broken Trail story came to be
Donaldina Cameron: While only obliquely mentioned in Broken Trail (when Print shares with Nola that he has; “found a place in San Francisco that will care for the children”) Donaldina Cameron is an important part of the story. A courageous and compassionate woman, Cameron, is credited with rescuing thousands of young Chinese girls who might have otherwise been doomed to a life of forced prostitution. Read her compelling biography > Fierce Compassion
Smallpox Bob: Alan Geoffrion’s Broken Trail story is fictional, yet delivers an accurate depiction of events of the day. There is one troubling aspect of the film, however, that evidently perpetuates a falsehood. Specifically, introduction of the Smallpox Bob character and his ‘deathly trade’… providing indians with infected blankets. Ward Churchill wrote extensively about ‘willful introduction’ of smallpox to indian tribes. But these accounts have since been debunked and Churchill faced plagiarism and other academic fraud charges. How much was Geofffrian’s story influenced by Churchill? Unknown. Yet those who support the ‘infected blanket trade‘ thesis, do so on flimsy factual grounds.
This is not to say despicable events and injustices were not visited upon native americans. But the smallpox blanket trade, as told in Broken Trail, was likely embellished or simply wrong. NOTE: The Amherst-Bouquet letters circa 1763 have oft been cited as proof of a ‘germ warfare’ plot against native tribes, yet there is no historical evidence to show Colonet Bouquet’s plans were ever carried out.