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‘Broken Trail’ gives the classic Western a twist

Cowboys become reluctant guardians for abandoned women in this TV film
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Deadwood.” “Into the West.” “Brokeback Mountain.” Don’t tell Robert Duvall the Western is dead.

“People are always saying that, but they’re always makin’ em as they’re saying those words,” says the iconic Academy Award-winning actor who stars in as well as executive produces the two-part Western adventure “Broken Trail,” premiering Sunday on AMC, 8 p.m. ET.

“The French have Moliere and the English have Shakespeare,” continues Duvall, “but the Western is ours. It’s a part of our culture.”

The four-hour saga attempts to bridge a cultural divide using the classic tale of the old West to introduce the little-told stories of the atrocities perpetrated on Chinese girls who were enslaved as prostitutes in frontier mining towns.

“The introduction of the Chinese women makes it a special thing; it’s what gets it off center,” says director Walter Hill, who won an Emmy for his work on the “Deadwood” pilot.

“This is obviously not a blood-and-thunder type Western,” he says, “it’s more character driven, and it’s driven by a rather elemental situation which I thought made a terrific premise and the kind of crucible that characters are revealed under.”

Showing a different aspect of the WesternShot entirely on location in Alberta, (which Duvall considers the next-best thing to Texas “without the accent”), “Broken Trail” — AMC’s first original made-for-TV movie — is set in 1897, the waning days of the American West.

Veteran cowboy Print Ritter (Duvall) and his estranged nephew, Tom Harte (Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church) have agreed to undertake a 1,000-mile horse drive from Oregon to Wyoming, hoping to make their fortune on the sale of the herd.

Along the way, they become the reluctant guardians of five abused and abandoned girls (played by “Desperate Housewives”’ Gwendoline Yeo, and Canadian newcomers Caroline Chan, Olivia Cheng, Jadyn Wong, Valerie Tian) who have been sold into servitude by their families in China.

Their attempt to care for the girls runs into problems due to language, custom and circumstance, including bandits intent on kidnapping the young women for illicit means. There’s also the constant challenge of pushing the herd along.

Writer Alan Geoffrion drew on the true-life stories of Nebraska rancher Waldo Haythorn — a friend of Duvall’s — whose grandfather at the turn of the century took a herd of 700 horses to South Dakota, and of Donaldina Cameron, a San Francisco woman who saved over 3,000 Chinese girls from prostitution during that time.

“I wanted to do a story that showed a different aspect to America in the Western experience, because it was made up of so many people,” says Geoffrion, who has adapted his screenplay into novel.

“One of my feelings,” Geoffrion says, “is that women were really strong. The guys shot one another and stabbed one another and did all those things, but the women still had to be there. Most who found themselves in prostitution led awful lives, and few of them ever came out of it. Some did, and there are great stories of women who triumphed over this.”

Actors prepare in different waysWith the 12-plus hour days, Duvall tried to lighten things up during the down time, usually inviting cast members to dine together in the evenings.

However, Haden Church, who coincidentally is a rancher in his native Texas, felt it was important to the story to maintain his distance — both physically and emotionally — from the women during production.

“I wasn’t rude,” insists Haden Church, now in production on “Spider-Man 3,” “but I definitely kept my distance because I felt like when they first meet the girls, and for a good way on the trail, he’s kind of wary of them. You want there to be some mystery with who these men are because the girls are incapable of understanding who they are — they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed — and I really wanted to maintain that dynamic.”

This is also why Gwendoline Yeo refrained from hanging around with castmates during the three-months shoot. The Singapore-born actress allowed herself, instead, to draw on the loneliness she remembers of the time she immigrated with her family to San Francisco.

“Being able to channel that understanding of going to a foreign land, of feeling invisible again, and being able to access the invisibility, I think that’s what these women felt,” she says during a lunchtime interview in West Los Angeles. She gets teary-eyed. “To think a hundred years earlier, if I immigrated then, I wouldn’t be here, I’d be on a ranch or in the mines.”

“I always thought this could be iconic for the nation,” says Duvall of the film. “In these times when people malign us a lot (on immigration issues), this country was built on people that were complex, that had good qualities and bad qualities. And this is good for the country to see, the world maybe, that there were good positive things that went on with these people in those days.”