Uncomfortable Humanity in ‘Broken Trail’

The 2006 miniseries Broken Trail brings several unique perspectives to the traditional Western paradigm, mainly because of its exploration of what it’s like on the other end of the brothel business.

When Print Ritter, his nephew, and their associate inadvertently intercept a human trafficker, they assume the guardianship of the five Asian girls he was transporting. Now the cowboys find themselves responsible for protecting a group of vulnerable young women who know no English, besides pursuing their original goal of delivering a herd of five hundred horses to market several states away. If that weren’t enough, they accumulate two more passengers along the way—one of whom has been a prostitute for decades. Complications, naturally, ensue.

At first viewing—even at third, fourth, or fifth—we feel dazzled by the blinding contrast between the worst of human depravity and the baseline of human decency. The three men who rescue the girls are heroes to us, but they are heroes just because they respond as we would wish any “decent human being” to respond.

It is one of those stories in which the heroism consists not of mighty feats but of commonplace gestures, not of stunning bravery, but of simple determination. Our protagonists do not achieve heroic status by ransoming the world, but by their refusal to buy into the lie that they have any right to look away from a travestyin their power to avert. Yet even in recognizing this, there is another admission that needs to made: the acknowledgement that before they encountered its collateral damage on a personal level, these men possibly contributed to the sex trade.

How many saloon bars did they patronize, knowing but not caring what was happening upstairs? How many women did they walk by, making no effort to help them? Worst of all, how many of those women did they “purchase” for themselves? In the novel, author Alan Geoffrion leaves nothing to speculation. He describes the men’s contradictory attitudes towards the industry, as they sleep with prostitutes at some times yet rescue those bound for that lifestyle at others. He showcases the hypocrisy in valuing one victim and but reducing others to an “inferior” class of women. (He implies no moral condemnation of these offenses in his writing; whether he recognizes them as such is not clarified. We can but hope.)

Onscreen, the story takes a subtler approach: we are never told of any past indiscretions these men may or may not have committed; the possibility is not even hinted at. Rather, it is a troubling idea that dawns on the viewer externally from a familiarity with historical context. Not every man in the Old West patronized brothels. But considering the probable reality of the percentage that did versus the percentage that did not, we are forced to grapple with even the possibility that our Print or Tom or Heck could have perpetuated the very injustice they later fought against.

It’s not a pleasant thought. It’s a slap on the face, actually. When someone enters your consciousness as a hero, it’s painful to confront that person’s moral failure. Especially when it’s a failure on that level—a failure that devastating. But it does no good to deny reality, and it really does no good to gloss over our role models’sin. So it leaves us with this troubling dissonance: how can such clarity and such blindness exist in the same human soul?

The only answer it gives us is this: sometimes it simply does. Sometimes we cannot reconcile it. Sometimes it just is, and it leaves us to grapple with it in a murky half-light of incomplete resolution for the rest of our days. “Justice delayed is justice denied, certainly”—but redemption delayed is not necessarily redemption denied. We do not know whether the men were on the right side of the war initially, but we know that they got there eventually. Print, Tom, and Heck never launched a large-scale attack against the evil of sex slavery, but they engaged in a few skirmishes. They put a few cracks in the armor of the machine.

They did do something.

It’s like that story of the man walking along the shore, throwing beached starfish back to the waves. The onlooker is right when he points out the man cannot hope to save them all. But the man is equally right when he responds, smiling defiantly as he flings another suffocating creature to safety, that he can save the one he is holding now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Olivia R. is an aspiring author, story enthusiast, and current college student. She can be found at Meanwhile, in Rivendell, where she blogs about books, movies, television, and assorted odds and ends.

2 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Humanity in ‘Broken Trail’

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  1. Thought-provoking stuff.

    I think this is a good example, too, of how the same person can be simultaneously the villain in one person’s story, and the hero in somebody else’s. Which doesn’t erase the fact that they were a villain or oppressor at one time … but it does mean they are trying to be better now, and God sees the efforts of those who genuinely try to change.

    Liked by 1 person

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