Today we reminisce about
Spencer Tracy & Robert Wagner
Broken Lance (1954) and The Mountain (1956)
The history of cinema is filled with examples of great on-screen couplings. There have been comedy duos like Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Martin & Dean. Romance brewed between Joan Crawford & Clark Gable, Bette Davis & George Brent and Esther Williams & Van Johnson. Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire set the standard for dancing with class and professionalism. Now there were times when it seemed rather strange to put two performers together, such as is the inspiration for 1968’s The Odd Couple. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon played off of each other’s differences so well that it made people yearn for the attraction of opposites. Clearly, having a successful twosome was more often than not a recipe for success.
It was pure chance that Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner were cast alongside each other in 1954’s Broken Lance for Twentieth Century Fox. Tracy had been under contract with MGM for 19 years at the time of he was signed to the film and was still considered one of their leading stars. Although many of his contemporaries had already been let go by the studio, Tracy remained. He was a veteran in the industry and managed to stay a notable box office draw, making him interesting to Fox who paid good money to borrow him from MGM. Ironically enough, Fox had been the first studio to sign Tracy when he was a Hollywood newcomer 24 years prior. As for Wagner, he was also a young Fox prodigy who had been under contract since late 1949. He was not the first choice to star in Broken Lance (neither was Tracy) but was likely cast thanks to the success he found with his first leading role in Beneath the 12-mile Reef the year before. The two men had 30 years of age and a generation of experience between them yet they hit it off. Perhaps Wagner reminded Tracy of himself during his early years in film. In any case, they forged a friendship that would allow them to work together again and remain close until Tracy’s death in 1967.
Although Broken Lance and The Mountain are two entirely different films, they share do share some common themes as well as production similarities. Both were directed by seasoned veteran Edward Dmytryk, who only a few years earlier had been named as one of the Hollywood Ten and whose career had been temporarily halted. After serving prison time and cooperating with the HUAC, he was rehired by several different studios. Right before Broken Lance, he had acted as director on Columbia Pictures’ The Caine Mutiny and regained his status as a respected filmmaker. Before I go on any further in the discussion, this would be a good time to briefly go over the films’ synopses.
Joseph Devereaux (Wagner) is the son of Irishman Matthew Devereaux (Tracy) and his second wife, an Indian princess who was the daughter of an Indian chief, now referred to as “Señora” (Katy Jurado). His mixed heritage does not fare well with the townspeople who are only accepting of him because his father is a very powerful, wealthy man. He also has a trying relationship with his three older half-brothers, including Ben (Richard Widmark), who feel as if Joseph is Matthew’s favourite son.
The film opens with Joseph leaving prison after serving a three-year sentence after claiming responsibility for the attack on a copper mine that was polluting the Devereaux water supply. The incident was in fact not of his doing but was organised by Matthew who was incensed that 40 of his cattle had died from copper poisoning. Joseph pled guilty to the charges in order to spare his father the humiliation of going to prison, not to mention the physical strain it would have entailed being sentenced to hard labour. During Joseph’s absence, his three half-brothers become increasingly hostile towards their father in an attempt to gain control of the entire estate and provoke Matthew’s untimely death.
Via flashback, we are shown how things were before everything started to go sour. The Devereaux family was not entirely harmonious during that time but they managed to function together. The three older boys worked diligently on overseeing how the land was managed and operated, often to the ignorance of Matthew who was emotionally distant from them. Matthew had a more relaxed attitude towards Joseph, largely thanks to his mother’s successful persuasion, and was expected to do much less and enjoy life a little more. One evening, Matthew’s niece Barbara (Jean Peters) and his Governor brother Horace (E.G. Marshall) come to the Devereaux ranch for a formal dinner. Joseph and Barbara are immediately taken with one another and eventually fall in love. While Señora and Matthew are perfectly content with the relationship, Joseph is rebuffed by Horace who does not want his daughter to be involved with a “half breed”.
This is a story of vengeance and redemption, of highs and lows. A family conflicted with a blood feud represented by an Indian lance at the grave of Matthew Devereaux.
Zachary Teller (Tracy) is a middle-age sheepherder in Chamonix, France, a small town at the feet of Mount Blanc in the Alps. He has never been married in large part because he prioritised the responsibility of raising his little brother, Christopher (Wagner), after his parents’ deaths. The two men live in the same house that their ancestors built in 1763 when they arrived in the area. While the region in which they live is beautiful and attracts plenty of tourists, locals are bound to working in agriculture and getting drunk in the local pub for entertainment. This sort of lifestyle has never bothered Zachary but is a social death to Christopher who just wants to get out of Dodge.
One stormy evening in the midst of a heavy snowstorm, a commercial aircraft travelling from Calcutta to Paris hits a pillar of rock and crashes on the top of the mountain. The plane explodes upon impact and a large fireball is seen although because of the time of the accident and the fact that it crashed on the side of the mountain facing opposite the village, no one in Chamonix witnesses the event. Everyone learns about it the next day via radio and their daily rituals are shaken when a search team arrives with plans to rescue any possible victims. The early autumn weather in the village is pleasant but the same cannot be said for the apex of the mountain which is 12,000 ft. in the air and already in a considerable deep freeze. Finding extra, qualified volunteers to make the climb will be difficult but actually reaching it will be next-to-impossible.
Having grown up in Chamonix and having explored the mountainside since he was a child, Zachary is one of the most experienced climbers around. However, he refuses to climb the mountain after his last expedition resulted in the death of an Englishman. To Zachary, “the mountain doesn’t want (him)” anymore. Unlike his brother, Christopher has never climbed the mountain or really expressed much of an interest in mountain climbing. Nonetheless, his interest is piqued when he hears about the possibility of precious, valuable cargo being on board the doomed flight. He comes up with the idea of climbing the mountain with Zachary so that they can retrieve money and other belongings that they can resell. This idea is immediately dismissed by Zachary who cannot believe the words coming out of Christopher’s mouth. The only thing that changes his mind is the thought of Christopher going up alone and becoming a victim of the mountain.
As they travel up the south face of Mount Blanc, they are able to be brothers and work together. It is the trip back down that will be the most challenging and life changing.
A lot of people found it strange that Tracy and Wagner would play father and son in one film and two years later play brothers. In Broken Lance, Wagner’s Joseph was actually supposed to be some years younger than Wagner himself who was 24 at the time of filming. Joseph was likely born to Matthew when he was in his early 40s judging by the circumstances. His half-brothers were considerably older than him, already putting in gruelling days of work while Joseph was still in diapers. So already, you have Wagner playing a character at least 5 years younger than his true age and Tracy playing a character who is supposed to be 10 years older, seeming to make their age gap increase from 30 years to 45. Whereas in The Mountain, Tracy’s Zachary was well into adulthood when his mother had Christopher; no doubt a pre-menopausal baby who arrived when she was nearing 50. It is not unthinkable that Zachary and Christopher could have a 25 to 30 year age gap. What is the oddest thing about their situation is that there is no mention of other children being born in between the two full-blooded brothers. In any case, this discrepancy is just a detail and is able to be overlooked.
Both Tracy and Wagner play vastly differing characters in each of these two films.
Matthew Devereaux is a stern father figure who only shows tender affection to his wife, Señora, who he still loves as much as the day they married one another. He can be very disagreeable to those who are not doing things his way or who turn their back on him. Zachary Teller is light years away from this kind of behaviour. He is a very patient, gentle-mannered man who is more than happy just walking in the fields with his herd of sheep. It is in his nature to offer his help and extend his well wishes, particularly to his brother who is hardly deserving of his thoughtfulness. Although he is not a church going man, Zachary has a lot of faith and performs many Christian acts.
As for Joseph Devereaux, he is a respectable young man who has been raised with a lot of love and affection from his mother’s side. He has a great deal of self-confidence but never tries to push too many boundaries due to his mixed heritage. His temper flares up only when an extreme situation arises. The exact opposite could be said of Christopher Teller who is moody and self-driven, uncaring of the people he hurts with his forked tongue and irresponsible demeanour. He is only motivated when he sees opportunity coming his way. Christopher is in the running as one of the most ill-tempered and unlikable fictional characters ever portrayed on-screen.
The common themes shared between Broken Lance and The Mountain mainly revolve around adverse qualities of human behaviour. Selfishness, greed and disloyalty are prevalent amongst the three older Devereaux brothers and Christopher Teller.
The Devereaux brothers harbour a lot of resentment towards their father because they appear no more important than the hired help. They feel that his moving on by marrying Señora and having another child made them less valuable as people, perhaps even as an insult to their deceased mother. What they set out for is payback from their father and from the half brother who they would rather see die than inherit any of the Devereaux land claim. It is truly shocking to see their actions in the second half of the film when the brothers show absolute disdain pushing their father over the edge, nearly shooting him to death on horseback before they realise that he has already had a fatal heart attack. When they realise that Matthew is dead, not a tear falls from their eyes and no remorse is expressed. After Joseph is released from prison, the brothers prepare for a merciless showdown that they hope will result in Joseph’s death so that they will be free to do whatever they please with the Devereaux estate and money. Ben eventually attacks a placid Joseph who just wishes to go on his way and peacefully renounce his hereditary claims. This is not enough for Ben who is determined to commit murder at any cost. Material goods and social standing have more importance to the Devereaux brothers than their own flesh and blood.
Equally despicable is Christopher Teller who is blinded by an unfathomable desire to rob from the unlucky dead of an airplane crash. He is willing to risk his own life and that of his brother in an attempt to gather riches, with possible death being a more appealing consolation prize than continuing life as he knows it in Chamonix.
“I don’t care if I break my neck. It’s alright for you to go on living like this because you’re finished. You don’t know any better.”
Even though Christopher could not care less about the effects of his own extreme behaviour, Zachary takes them very much to heart.
“You’re sweating. Thinking of the dead men’s money is making you sweat. I blame myself for you being like this. Somewhere I must have done something wrong, I guess.”
Quite like the Devereaux brothers, Christopher is at odds with generational differences that make it difficult to understand and appreciate tradition, not to mention continuing it. For the brothers, they were brought up not having much of an existence outside of working the land and maintaining their father’s dealings. It was simply expected of them since birth. Continuing on after their father and building new history with Joseph is not at all interesting to them. They are willing to sell what their father worked decades to achieve just for a bundle of money in their pockets. Christopher functions in a very similar fashion as he wishes to sell the Teller homestead for money, uncaring of the fact that the Teller family has been in the town for nearly 200 years. His family heritage means nothing to Christopher who blames his birth into the world for his unhappiness as it was something that he “never asked for”. There comes a point when Zachary offers the house to Christopher in the hopes of stopping his mad claims on the crash site’s valuables which is immediately mocked. Since there is a possibility of so many valuable goods being present at the crash site, Christopher considers the money they would get on the farm to be nothing in comparison to what they can retrieve on the mountain.
Watching films that have such difficult, morally impenetrable characters is not always an easy task. Despite this, much can be learned about the past and how the generation gap affected those who came before us. It can still be quite shocking to learn that our ancestors were as persuaded by worldly goods and evils of the mind as we can be today.
Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner give very strong performances in each film. It is a pleasure to see their scenes together even if the exchanges between their characters are not so nice. Broken Lance received the most attention and was a box-office success, likely helped by the heavy promotion of Tracy by both Fox and MGM. The old fox still had it! The Mountain was Tracy’s first film after leaving MGM and becoming an independent player. It was also filmed on location overseas, making good use of French exteriors and countryside rather than doing most of the work on a sound stage. In my opinion, The Mountain is a shy masterpiece that encompasses the natural beauty of Europe (very much like The Quiet Man does for Ireland) all the while providing a riveting story. You are very much on the edge of your seat during the climb up the mountain with Tracy giving his absolute all, physically exerting himself that will leave you almost breathless. It makes me sad that Tracy and Wagner could not have starred in another project together yet the fact that they bowed out on such a high note is uplifting.