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Review of Robert Duvall's Production of "Broken Trail"

Opening with a stark image of Gwendoline Yeo and other young Chinese girls, provided by notorious Chinese “brokers of flesh,” being unwillingly probed and examined in various stages of attire by a White man who is there to "purchase them" - Robert Duvall’s production of “Broken Trail” thoughtfully tells a tale where two cowboys (“Print Ritter“- played by Robert Duvall and “Tom Harte” - played by Thomas Haden Church) encounter a corrupt trafficker with five “hundred men wives” from China during their 1,000-mile horse drive from Eastern Oregon to Sheridan, Wyoming for riches to have a new start in life by providing the British greatly needed horses resulting in their participation in the Boer War.

Stars of "Broken Trail"
In their respective search for freedoms – Print Ritter (an aging cowboy) seeking a better life for his nephew Tom Harte and fortune (with the help of Heck Gilpin – played by Scott Cooper) - knowing that if the venture fails, it will bring financial ruin - and five Chinese girls seeking a better fate in a new world. As often happens when “iron sharpens iron” (as stated in the Bible) – unexpected strengths and discoveries occurs. When Print Ritter and Tom Harte (a cowboy that is hard-up) unexpectedly meet five Chinese “Hundred Men Wives” with their indomitable spirit of survival – unexpected invaluable hard-fought lessons are learned by all in their collective efforts in fighting extraordinary specters of flesh and spirit, mystified by the mysteries of love and pride while learning trust and hope amongst each other with “an unerring beam of salvation guiding them to prevail against intolerable odds and pulls each character towards their destiny.” (Thomas Haden Church)

In AMC’s (a division of Rainbow Media’s Entertainment Services) first foray into films, this Walter Hill-directed production has resulted in accurately nuanced portrayals from Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church – along with performances from Gwendoline Yeo, Olivia Cheng, Caroline Chan, Jadyn Wong and Valerie Tian that provided a rare and clear glimpse of what probably occurred many times during the waning days in America’s West at the close of the 19th century. Ranging from Gwendoline Yeo’s compelling portrayal in the opening scene as she is being “considered” as a sex slave – along with her wordless last scene with Thomas Haden Church’s “Tom Harte” and Olivia Cheng’s progression to desperation, these actresses deserves high marks for their respective efforts. Caroline Chan, Jadyn Wong and Valerie Tian convincingly displayed the wide-eye awe and innocence that must have been felt by many of the girls

The strength of Gwendoline Yeo’s Sun Foy to stay with Thomas Haden Church’s “Tom Harte” – despite their language barrier – in the Old West brought to light similar historical stories such as Polly Bemis (Lalu Nathoy), China Mary (prominent businessperson and married to Ah Lum – another high-profiled and successful owner of restaurants), Ah Toy and others. These scenes provided an inside glimpse into the fears, traditions and strengths that distinguished these two groups from each other, along with the identifying the many things that the “Americans” and the “Chinese” in this story had in common. (For additional information on the history of the above-mentioned people and other Asian Pacific Americans, click HERE)

Gwendoline, Olivia, Jadyn, Caroline and Valerie

Embedded throughout the entire film was ample evidence of Alan Geoffrion’s research to assure accuracy - that also included working closely with the Chinese actresses. This was seen in the language spoken, the integration of how death is dealt with or perceived, the many dangers of their lives, how Chinese girls were bought, portrayal of a typical “owner,” possible interactions/reactions, etc. – it was a learning experience for the American creative team and an enlighten revelation(s) for the Chinese actresses.

Upon viewing the film, it was interesting that Mandarin was the Chinese language used since most of the Chinese brought over were from Southern China where Cantonese was spoken. Insights on the many similarities between prostitutes of the Old West (i.e. Nora) were utilized as direct comparisons to the very real fates that await the Chinese girls. With the specter of death, rape and suicide – in its many forms - being very prevalent throughout the Old West during the late 19th century, these integrated sub-plots were portrayed with poignancy and accuracy – such as the Chinese correlation between the number “4” and death, the consequences of viewing a killing/execution and other examples. The rape and suicide scenes vividly and unmistakably displayed the blatantly blind racism and sexism that existed towards the Chinese during those times seemingly drew upon not commonly known historical backdrop that included the Exclusion Acts, Geary Law, People vs. Hall (testimony of a Chinese witnesses are not valid), Fifteem Passenger Bill, Page Law, lynching of Look Young, Alien Land Laws, Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, Snake River Massacre, Scott Act, California Governor Markham’s vow to keep the Chinese out of California and the long-lasting opposition of national labor union leadership leaders (i.e. Selig Perlman, Terence Powderly, Frank P. Sargent, Samuel Gompers, John Swinton).

Donald Fong’s “Lung Hay” represented a not-often told story of Chinese men in the Old West who spoke English on the level of others (There was no “Bad English” and/or stereotyped “accented” English was heard) and stood up for their rights as people with great character and strength that had experienced great sadness. His life represented the “China Boys” – the common description of the 25,000 Chinese men who arrived during the 19th century that left families in China seeking fortune during “The Gold Rush” with dreams of “Golden Mountain” that ended up empty-handed. His character also represented the dreams, strength and fortitude that translated into success of 19th century Chinese men such as Chien Lung (successful “Chinese Potatoe King”), Wing Chin Foo (activist, journalist), Chung Afong (successful businessmen), Lue Gim Gong (agriculture), Ah Lum/Quong Gee Kee (prominent business/restaurant owners in places such as Tombstone, Arizona) and others. Robert Duvall, Allan Geoffrian and Walter Hill deserve a great deal of credit of including a honest portrayal of a Chinese male (albeit in a small supporting role) without falling into Hollywood’s common policy of having this character played with a stereotyped accent without a backbone.

Alice Bateman, Shari Robertson, Danny Maher, Gary MacNab, Gary Anderson and the "Girls"

The balance of the cast consist of Rusty Schwimmer (“Big Rump Kate”), Greta Scacchi (“Nola Johns”), Chris Mulkey (“Big Ears Bywaters”) and James Russo (“Billy Fender”) gave credible representations of their characters that are commonly known to have existed during those times. From the “Madams” that controlled much of the commerce (i.e. Julia Bulette, Lizzie King), to prostitutes (“Big Nose” Kate) and the outlaws that transport illegal “cargo” – the realities of death, the everyday struggles of just staying alive and the harshness of justice were well-represented.

For Asian Pacific Americans and Chinese Americans who view themselves as important integrated parts of the wide and diverse tapestry of the American communities – as oppose to a “separated” community, “Broken Trail” represents the type of historical stories that are invaluable for all people to see and to be produced – in conjunction with other stories and documentaries such as Bill Moyer’s PBS project on Chinese Americans.

Background Resources
Film Website 
Gwendoline Yeo
Olivia Cheng
Duvall, Cheng & Geoffrion Roundtable Discussion
L.A. Times Review
Robert Duvall's Thoughts Articles

Robert Duvall (along with others such as Alan Geoffrion, Walter Hill and others) deserves a great deal of credit of seeking to assure the greatest accuracy within their grasp and understanding in a well-produced tale that is not often known and/or even highly valued within the American general public – sadly many within the Chinese/Asian American communities are/were unaware of this “shameful secret.”

In this present day where Asian/Asian Pacific American artists such as John Woo, Chou Yun-fat, Lucy Liu and others are having a great deal of problems bringing similar historical subjects to the “Big Screen” – it is great reassuring that acclaim artists such as Robert Duvall are telling these stories and that companies such as AMC are willing to show them – especially in their first original film effort and considering the amount of promition that is behind this project. Hopefully, other similar stories are in the future will be brought to the “Big Screen” from AMC-TV and other American entertainment companies - along with Asian/Asian Pacific American entertainment entities.

To Return to the Beginning of the Interview, click HERE
Visit the below-listed links for additional information on the various subjects that were discussed during the interview
American Cast Bios "Bound Feet" (Valerie Tian) Background Resources Community Issues
Community Support Current State of AA Women Suicides Diversity Donaldina Cameron
Gwendoline Yeo's Music Views Historical Footnotes Insights Behind the Characters Introductions
Iris Chang Lasting Impressions Parting Thoughts Personal Backgrounds
Project's Beginnings Project's Historical Research Review of the Program Role Models
Telling the Chinese Immigrant Story Why Show Biz? Working on the Set Working with Robert Duvall

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