The Broken Chain
The Broken Chain is an American historical drama, produced in 1993 for television by Lamont Johnson. In this film, Eric Schweig took the leading role for the first time in his career, playing the famous Iroquois Chief Joseph Brandt / Thayendanegea. At his side, we find Pierce Brosnan (Sir William Johnson, New York’s agent to the Iroquois for the British Empire), Wes Studi (Seth, Chief and Speaker for the Tribes), Buffy Sainte-Marie (Gesina, Seth’s Wife and Head of the Mother’s Council), JC White Shirt (Lohaheo, Thayendanegea’s friend and brother in battle), Elaine Bilstad (Catherine, Gesina’s granddaughter and Thayendanegea’s first love), Graham Greene (two brief and silent appearances as the spirit of The Peace Maker). The story is set in the 18th century. While the Revolutionary War rages, two Iroquois brothers battle with settlers moving into new territory. Joseph Brant / Thayendanegea, a young Mohawk warrior, fought valiantly to drive the French out of America. He is thus noticed by Sir William Johnson, who sent him in an English school. But Joseph’s new allegiance to the British Empire will pose serious problems on his return to his tribe.
Eric Schweig starts the film with a voiceover narration, describing a brief history of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League and their “Great Peace” (which inspired the political model of the United States). Nathan Lee embodies Joseph Brant for these first chapters showing the teenage years of the future Iroquois leader. Eric Schweig appears later in the film, at the Battle of Fort Carillon.
This role as a warrior was perfectly fits for Eric Schweig’s stature, but it did not offer him many opportunities to develop his character. Therefore, Eric Schweig keeps his famous fierce and impenetrable facial expression almost throughout the entire film. There are other problems regarding direction of actors in this movie: Pierce Brosnan and Buffy Sainte-Marie accentuates their acting sometimes way too much.
Still, Eric Schweig has some intimate moments in The Broken Chain where he can play in a more nuanced way. I’m thinking especially of the two dialogues with Buffy Sainte-Marie, the one where Joseph asks for Catherine’s hand, and the one where, after suffering Catherine’s refusal, he decides to leave the village, with obvious emotional pain.
It is also interesting to compare some of Eric Schweig’s lines of dialogue in The Broken Chain with some of his lines in his recent role as Bug in Kissed by Lightning (2009) by Mohawk artist and filmmaker Shelley Niro. In The Broken Chain, after destroying the village of a Delaware tribe, Joseph Brant brought back a captive, Peggy (Grace Renn) and he falls in love with her. In his declaration of love in the canoe that brings them back to his village, when he said “I want you to be happy, I want to make you happy,” I heard in my head the same sentence said by Eric Schweig in Niro’s film. The comparison shows the enormous progress made by the actor since his beginning.
The unusual element of the film is the prosthesis on Eric Schweig’s forehead during the second part of The Broken Chain. Iroquois men were accustomed to shave their heads, but it was of course out of the question that Eric Schweig cuts his beautiful long hair for the role of Joseph Brant. The movie team therefore applied a prosthetic front on his head to give the impression that he had shaved half of his skull. The result was a disaster. Joseph Brant looks more like a Klingon from Star Trek than an Iroquois, but Eric Schweig keeps the dignity of his character in spite of this strange thing on his forehead, and even managed to move us in his speech at the end of the film, when Brandt admits his mistake in giving his trust to the English who have betrayed and abandoned his people.
In conclusion, The Broken Chain is not the best of Eric Schweig’s movies. The sets, editing and cinematography are classic and well done, the story is well told and puts forward the views and values of First Nations (especially the Iroquois matriarchy), so, for these reasons, the film deserves to be watched with attention. By the way, Eric Schweig praises The Broken Chain for having three Native American co-producers and eight Iroquois consultants who were meticulous in their attention to historical details.
Interestingly, Eric Schweig again embodied Joseph Brant on the screen seven years later (although very briefly), this time in the television series Canada: A People’s History (2000).
The Broken Chain in Black and White
The Broken Chain Movie Stills
Director: Lamont Johnson
Writer: Earl W. Wallace
Actors: Eric Schweig, Pierce Brosnan, Wes Studi, Buffy Sainte-Marie, J.C. White Shirt, Elaine Bilstad, Graham Greene.