[FILM] Broken Trail - Tale of Cowboys and Chinese "Hundred Men Wives"
- Shattered Dreams and Broken Trials
A roundtable discussion behind a story of Chinese slavery that still
exists in the states.
The American West at the close of the 19th century was a land of
Progress-minded business men, pioneers intent on building a home,
railroad magnates with dreams of empires and those who gradually saw
their freedoms disappear through greed and lawlessness.
Such was the fate of the young Chinese women sold as servants by
mainland Chinese families and sent to serve as prostitutes in the
towns and camps of the American Midwest. Theirs was a fate worse
Writer Alan Geoffrion, Producers Stanley M. Brooks, Rob Carliner and
Robert Duvall, and Director Walter Hill (Wild Bill) have woven a
magnificent tapestry filmed in the rolling hills near Calgary,
Alberta, in Canada. Duvall headlines a cast that includes Thomas
Haden Church, Valerie Tian, Chris Mulkey, Scott Cooper, Jadyn Wong,
Olivia Cheng, Gwendoline Yeo and Caroline Chan.
Broken Trail, a miniseries which airs on June 25 and 26 at 8:00 p.m.
on AMC, follows veteran cowboy Print Ritter (Duvall) and his nephew
Tom Harte (Church) as they undertake a dangerous 1,000-mile journey
from Eastern Oregon to Sheridan, Wyoming, in 1897. Along the way,
they encounter a corrupt slave trafficker taking five Chinese girls
to a mining camp to be the camp prostitutes. Rescuing the young
women, the men put themselves and their livestock at risk during
their escape. Faced with dangerous circumstances, Ritter, Harte and
the women discover their strength as they overcome cultural barriers.
What's the message behind Broken Trail? True West conducted a
roundtable discussion with actors Robert Duvall and Olivia Cheng and
writer Alan Geoffrion to find out.
TW: Let's start off with how Broken Trail came to be.
AG: We are both friends and neighbors. We are lucky that way.
RD: For a long time now.
AG: Well, Bobby's got a place down in Argentina, a ranch. He was
getting ready to go down for Christmas holidays, the year before
last, and we were getting together for lunch. I told him about a
story that had been told by me by an old rancher.
I don't know if you're familiar with the Haythorn Land and Cattle
Company in Ogallala, Nebraska. It's a pretty big outfit. The head of
it, at that time, was Waldo Haythorn. His son Greg runs it now.
Waldo told me about his grandfather taking a herd of horses from
Eastern Oregon back to the Rosebud Reservation for a government
contract. We were just talking, not shop. At some point, he said,
you should write that down. That's a pretty good idea. So, the next
morning, I got a call at 8:30, and he asked me how much I'd written.
So, I thought I'd better get started. In about five or six weeks, I
had the basic framework laid out.
Another thing that I'd been fascinated with and wanted to intertwine
the two. There was a lady in San Francisco in the late 1800s, early
1900s, named Donaldina Cameron [see June 2004, Women of the West].
She ran a rescue mission in San Francisco for young Chinese girls to
try and save them from being sold into prostitution. A lot of these
girls ended up in cow camps and mining towns around the West.
Because they were so cheap to bring over and the control [over their
lives] was so complete, they had a brief, violent life in North
America. Their average life in the country was five years before
they succumbed to either suicide, violence or disease.
So I started working on the idea; I had the thing laid out. From
then on, I'd call up [Duvall] or we'd get together for lunch. The
first version was set up for a movie in about six months as
RD: From a story viewpoint, the thing that came first was the
journey on the trail, then the women and their plight came after
that. Geoffrion did a lot of research on the plight of these women
and made it as factual as possible. It makes a very compelling story
that needs two nights to tell it.
TW: How much input did you have in the film Mr. Duvall?
RD: [Alan] and I conferred on this script from its genesis. As Alan
said, it started at a lunch and over time, we both shaped it.
TW: Did anyone else help with the script?
AG: I had great people like Horton Foote, the great screenplay
writer (To Kill A Mockingbird, Tender Mercies) to vet [the script]
and give me some good advice. The other thing, I had a lot of
cowboys read itguys earning their paycheck up on a saddle.
Thomas Haden Church plays Tom Harte, the nephew of Robert Duvall's
character Print Ritter. Fresh off comedic films such as Spanglish,
Sideways and George of the Jungle, Church revisits a Western role
again after portraying Billy Clanton in Tombstone.
TW: Is it a true story?
AG: People have asked me if this is a true story. This is a
collection of true stories. I did not have to use my creative
imagination for the original script. Everything that happened in
that draft was either from a private diary, correspondence and
letters. Real events. Real people. We wanted to get closer to the
truth and show the Western experience through the eyes of different
TW: Olivia, as a young Asian actress, how did the role of Yee Fung
change your perception of Chinese history in the U.S.?
OC: I was not aware of the forced slavery before I got the role, and
even a little embarrassed when I found out. It forced me to research
the story. I had not known that even in the early 1800s, young
Chinese girls were brought over to America and forced into
prostitution in brothels and mining camps across the Midwest. It is
an issue that still exists today, and after my research, it blew me
away. Thousands of girls, possibly hundreds of thousands, were
brought over here after being sold by their families without their
say. Many took their own lives, died in "hospitals" (out of sight or
out of mind) or were killed by the brutality of the camps. It was
shocking ... young Asians are not educated about this. During
filming, I realized that if I was born in a different time and
different place, it could have been me.
TW: With the role of the Chinese girls so central to the film, how
did you go about characterizing the women?
OC: When I first heard about the project, I was wary. Here we go,
another Hollywood project where the Asian characters are reduced to
one dimensional human beings and not given the chance to show that
they are damaged people. I did not want to be a living prop. When I
realized that we were essential to the story and we could be
normal "little" girls, I wanted to play Yee Fung with dignity. I
wanted her to be a human being. The tone of the movie let me know I
could do that.
AG: There was an incredible amount of people who took part in the
Western experience. The classic Western has zeroed in on the tall,
silent, Anglo cowboy who could do no wrong. The real backbone of the
story of the West are the women, and [the story of these Chinese
women] had not been told before. We wanted to do that.
TW: Cast-wise, Broken Trail is rich. Duvall, Thomas Haden Church,
Gwendoline Yeo, Valerie Tian, Scott Cooper and you, Olivia Cheng,
add so much to the finished product. How difficult was casting for
OC: As for Thomas Church, Tom is so known for his comedic roles.
George of the Jungle. Sideways. A lot of people will realize there
is more to him than the roles he portrays so well because he is such
a good actor. When I met him on set, I expected him to be the life
of the party, but he wasn't. He is a serious, articulate,
[His character] Tom Harte is a cowboy with issues. Really hard up.
First time we meet him, he's castrating cattle, not climbing the
cowboy corporate ladder. This cattle drive for him represents a
second chance at a better life ... as the story unfolds, you learn
what shapes him into the cowboy he is. He is the last person you
would expect to show compassion to the girls. He takes them under
his wings but [is] not very affectionate. Duvall is the more
affectionate one. Kind of like the father. Tom Harte is not warm and
bubbly. Underneath all the bitterness, he is a good man.
AG: The girls were a different matter.
RD: Olivia came from Edmonton. I was the one who found her on the
tape out of about 135 actors across Canada, which I saw in one
afternoon, and she stood out in a good way. And I figured, why not
let Edmonton be represented, since we had good actors from other
parts of Canada. My own sense of a quota system.
OC: As an actress, it was like winning the lottery. To get to watch
one of the Living Legends is an amazing experiencea lightning
strike. It changed my perspective on acting. Robert Duvall brings
something different to every take. He doesn't have a set reaction.
He reacts, not acts. He plays off what the other actor brings. He
taught all of us that acting is about being on camera and letting it
capture what you are doing. Gwendoline Yeo was the most experienced.
Jadyn Wong, Valerie Tian, Caroline Chan and I were very green.
TW: Isn't that mixture of experience and inexperience what Alan
wanted to capture in the film?
OC: Yeah. Alan told us that was one thing he couldn't put into the
script, was our natural connectiveness and chemistry. We bonded as a
unit and became one. It was what they wanted. We became close to
each other. When we were scared, we put our arms around each other.
That's what I remember. We all brought something different to the
AG: The girls were always going to be the secret weapon. When they
come up on screen, you go WOW. I wanted to make sure they weren't
relegated to some stereo-typical background characters. They seemed
to like it. I told them, "I'm not a woman, nor am I Chinese. I try
to keep the emotions in a gender neutral place. If you find
something that is not quite right, come talk to me." And they did.
OC: Alan told us "I am an old white guy, if you have a problem with
a scene, let me know." He appreciated our input. He doesn't know our
Chinese culture or even the female mind. One example of the
collaborative effort is when Print Ritter, the Duvall character, is
trying to make first contact with the girls so they know he is a
friend. Duvall can't understand them, so he numbers them off. One,
Two, Three, Four. As the girls talk, they realize what he is
doing. "He's numbering us. You're number one, two, three, four." I
told Alan that phonetically, the word four sounds like death. Fh
instead of Th makes a difference. We added a little scene to explain
that. "I don't want number four. I don't want to die," we had the
girl say. The Asian audiences will understand; our superstition is
TW: The production crew for the film is very talented. Director
Walter Hill, Robert Duvall and yourself.
AG: The Canadian crew was fantastic. They did a great job. I worked
up there in 2002 on Open Range, and it was the same experience. For
that one, we had double the budget for a two-hour [film] as opposed
to half the budget for a four-hour [miniseries]. Great people. Ken
Rempel, the production designer, would wave his magic wand and
something would happen. I was amazed at how many of the crew, the
grips, the cameramen, the guy who drove the honey wagon would come
up to me and say "I read the script." They took a real interest in
it. The great Alberta scenery is second to none. The Bews family
[ranch hands in the miniseries] is just amazing to work with.
OC: Walter Hill was very much a "roll the camera" type director. I
can count on my hand the number of times he stepped in and asked us
to change something.
AG: With Walter at the helm, he wanted more action. We had thought
of it as more of a character-driven film. We understood and put some
action into it, beefed up the villains a little, and both Bobby and
I were very clear that we did not want to have this like all the
TW: Was the film originally slated to air on AMC?
RD: It was a go project at CBS, but we turned them down because of
certain things we asked for. Shortly thereafter, AMC came aboard. We
had written the film as a feature length, but they wanted to do a
AG: AMC wanted to do a two-night miniseries, so it doubled the
length of shooting time and scripting time, but we felt like we had
a lot there. Westerns tend to run a little longer than action films
like The French Connection; it's just a different cadence. And there
was no shortage of subplots.
TW: With the film coming up for broadcast, has the work stopped?
AG: That's ironic you would ask that. I still get e-mails asking for
input, and this morning, I received one. They're still putting the
finishing touches on [the film]. Right now, I'm working on the
novel, which will be published by Fulcrum Press of Colorado, and
after that, Bobby and I have a couple other potential projects.
RD: We're still editing the film. In terms of handling the roles of
actor and executive produceras an actor, it was fine, but the other
juggling process was a nightmare.
TW: What's next?
AG: The novel.
RD: After broadcast, some rest and a badly needed vacation in
TW: Any final thoughts on the film?
OC: For a first major role, it is an amazing film to be in.
AG: Bobby had said he really wanted this to be the third jewel in
the crown for him, Lonesome Dove, Open Range and now Broken Trail.
RD: It was not an easy experience by any stretch of the imagination,
but it was very worthwhile and fulfilling for me. I feel when this
movie airs, it will be very good timing for the United States of
Walter Hill still a man of the West
By Susan King, Times Staff Writer
GROWING up in Long Beach in the 1940s and '50s, writer-director
Walter Hill and his younger brother could always be found at the
local movie theater. "I always loved movies," he says, "but I loved
westerns the best."
During his nearly 40-year career, the writer-director has carried on
the western tradition shaped by such filmmakers as John Ford, Sam
Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Anthony Mann.
"I always say somehow, it is like imprinting with animals you take
the little duck and put it next to a clock, and it thinks the clock
is its mother. My brother and I, it seemed all we ever did was go to
westerns as kids."
This week, American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica
is offering a tribute to Hill that features his latest western, the
two-part miniseries "Broken Trail," which airs June 25 and 26 on
cable's AMC, as well as two of his other sagebrush sagas:
1980's "The Long Riders," which focuses on Jesse and Frank James,
and 1993's "Geronimo: An American Legend." Rounding out the
retrospective are Hill's directorial debut, 1975's "Hard Times," and
the 1989 drama "Johnny Handsome." Hill will appear at the Aero on
Thursday and Friday.
The Cinematheque, says Hill, suggested films for the retrospective,
and he agreed. Not that the features selected are necessarily his
"People always want to know what your favorite films are, and I
resist that," says the 64-year-old Hill over bacon and toast at the
"I always say, 'The next one.' It is complicated. They are not
simply aesthetic experiences. They are social experiences an
investment and sometimes you had a good time doing them and
sometimes you didn't have a good time, and that clouds your
HILL, who hasn't had a hit movie in years, has found a new outlet
for his craft on cable. In recent years, he has won the Emmy and
Directors Guild of America awards for directing the impressive first
episode of HBO's western series, "Deadwood." And now he has "Broken
Trail," which stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.
AMC, he says, chose "Broken Trail" as its first miniseries "not
simply out of their love or reverence for westerns. They find that
their basic ratings go up when they air westerns."
It was the Oscar-winning Duvall, with whom he worked on "Geronimo,"
who sent him the script penned by Alan Geoffrion.
"Duvall had developed it with Alan," says Hill. "I thought it was a
good story, and I was looking to do something that wasn't
biographical. I wasn't constricted by the historical aspect. If you
do a movie about [Wild Bill] Hickok, he has to go to the No. 10
Saloon and he's going to get shot in the back of the head and
Geronimo is going to go to Florida. I wanted to do something that
maybe had a little bit more open canvas and also something that
wasn't as blood-and-thunder as other things I had done."
Duvall plays an aging cowboy who teams with his estranged nephew
(Church) to drive a herd of mustangs to their buyer, knowing that if
the venture fails, it will bring financial ruin to both men. Along
the way, they end up taking care of five young Chinese women sold
into slavery who were on their way to being delivered to a brothel
in a rough-and-tumble mining town. The town's madam discovers what's
happened to the girls and sends a group of vicious henchmen to bring
"The thing that struck me was that these are men who lead not
particularly remarkable lives up to that point, who take on a
situation for reasons of family and finance that is an enormously
difficult thing to do drive these horses for 8- or 900 miles,"
"Through fate, they become the unwitting and unwilling protectors of
these five girls, and this brings out complicated human reactions.
They are not always perfect in their decision-making, but they are
basically, despite their weaker moments, real decent guys, and the
situation brings out the best in them."
Though the film was shot on a TV budget and schedule in Alberta,
Canada, Hill decided to shoot it big. "I am going to let it breathe
and let it play. It's not a hard-driving, fast-paced type of thing.
We are out there in God's country, and we're out there with God's
creatures, and the herd [of horses] became endlessly fascinating to
One scene he's most proud of occurs when Church's character has to
put one of the horses down by shooting it after it hurts its leg.
"So little is said, and I thought Tom handled it with just the right
amount of purpose to get it over with, to dispatch the situation
as smoothly as possible and at the same time feel the pain. To me it
is almost a microcosm of what the entire sensibility of [the movie]
is about. It's the working man, good at what he does but having a
larger sensibility. I think if you apply that to the situation
involving the young Chinese women, it kind of encapsulates it all."