A woman’s lot
Heartland is a drama which in a way harks right back to the early days of silent movies. There is a whole sub-genre of ‘women on the harsh frontier’ pictures, of which Heartland is one. In 1917, Famous Players’ 5-reeler The Land of Promise, now missing and presumed lost, shot on location in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, was directed by Joseph Kaufman, and starred Billie Burke and Thomas Meighan, with a screenplay by Charles E Whittaker, based on Somerset Maugham’s play of the same name. This was remade by the studio (now called Paramount) in 1926 as The Canadians, an 8-reeler directed by William Beaudine, also starring Thomas Meighan. This still exists and I’ll be reviewing it soon.
Between those two, in 1921, the Robertson-Cole Distributing Corporation released a picture directed by Henry King, also now lost, a six-reel film titled The Sting of the Lash. That too concerned a young woman facing the ordeal of a brutally severe life on the frontier.
MGM’s The Prairie Wife (1925) was a seven-reel melodrama directed by Hugo Ballin and written by Ballin from a 1915 Arthur Stringer story, part of the ‘Prairie Trilogy’. Once again, it dealt with a woman having to come to terms with a hard life on the Western plains. And the Cecil B DeMille-produced film White Gold in 1927, dealt with a young Mexican woman forced to live a tough life on an Arizona ranch. It starred Jetta Goudon (a vamp to rival Gloria Swanson and a protégée of DeMille) as the girl, Kenneth Thomas as her husband and George Bancroft (Jack Slade in Cruze’s The Pony Express, Oscar-nominated for von Sternberg’s crime drama Thunderbolt in 1929) as the drifter she falls in love with. This one too we’ll review soon.
Most famous of all (and best) was Victor Sjöström’s The Wind in 1928, in which a frail young woman from the East (Lillian Gish) moves in with her cousin in the West, where she causes tension within the family and is slowly driven mad. This too I’ll soon be writing about. Other films, such as Wild Geese in 1927 and the talkie Bride of the Desert in 1929, dealt with this subject.
So Heartland was not ‘original’ in that sense. However, it was very well done indeed and is a worthy treatment of the theme.
It’s not a Western in the shoot ‘em up sense (the only firearm seen is the rifle used to shoot the pig) but then nor were its predecessors, though it is very much Western in the way that it depicts the role of a woman on a remote Wyoming ranch and the hardships involved.
The film opens with a scene that reminded me a little of Johnny Depp in Dead Man (just coincidental, I’m sure) as a person travels on a slow train to an uncertain future in the West. This time it’s Elinore Randall, a stout widow with her seven-year-old daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom). Elinore is played, wonderfully well, by Conchata Ferrell, an award-winning stage actress who is probably, however, best remembered as the housekeeper Berta in the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men. Elinore is going West to become housekeeper to a Scots rancher in Wyoming, Clyde Stewart, under an arrangement by which Stewart pays her fare and she agrees to work on the ranch for one year.
Stewart turns out to be the dourest of Scots. He has no small talk and expects only that Elinore will work. And she has a great deal of very hard work to do, too, even the plowing. Stewart is stoic to the point of cruelty. He very slowly becomes fatherly to the little girl, so we understand that he is not entirely heartless in the heartland.
Stewart is played by another talented stage actor who turned to the big (and small) screen, Rip Torn. Apart from a Scots accent that occasionally slipped into Swedish, it’s an excellent performance. Phil Hardy in his review of the film said, “Torn’s performance is magisterial,” and I am inclined to agree.
In fact the quality of the acting is one of the strongest points of this film.
The non-Western look of the picture is heightened by an almost documentary style from director Richard Pearce, a cinematographer who worked on Woodstock and directed such documentaries as an episode of The Blues. Heartland was photographed by Fred Murphy, who would later be a cameraman on All the Pretty Horses and he did a great job of the bleak Montana locations.
When farm hand Jack (Barry Primus, also good) sees the writing on the wall – he reckons the Stewart place isn’t going to get through the winter – he quits, and Clyde, Elinore and young Jerrine have to manage on their own. At one point Elinore almost cracks, but she resumes her struggle.
The wedding of Clyde and Elinore was brilliantly handled, I thought. Clyde must have been impressed by Elinore, though is far too stony actually to show it. She is married in her apron and work boots in a simple country ceremony on the farm, followed by clumsy dancing to a fiddle. The music, by Charles Gross, is in fact another strong point of this film, entirely suitable and appropriate to the setting. The violin music sometimes strays from the folky to downright classical.
I liked Elinore’s friend Grandma Landauer, with her strong German accent, played, again extremely well, by Lilia Skala. She is tired, almost worn out, as we sense one day Elinore will be, but still indomitable and redoubtable.
The animal killing scenes were too realistic for me (I’m a squeamish soul) but I guess they added to the rustic earthiness of the piece. The pig sounded more enraged than hurt to me when it was shot.
Grandma Landauer is away when the baby comes, so no classic cliché of “hot water, lots of it”. Elinore has to manage on her own. It’s a grit your teeth moment. The loss of the infant and the funeral is intensely moving.
The film is based on letters written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. These dated from April 1909 to November 1913 and were first printed in The Atlantic Monthly. The film’s closing credits read: “In Loving Memory of Elinore and Clyde Stewart.” Screenwriter Beth Ferris and executive producer Annick Smith interviewed the children of Elinore Pruitt Stewart for the production. They also consulted historians.
Roger Ebert said, “In a movie filled with wonderful things, the very best thing in Heartland is Conchata Ferrell’s voice. It is strong, confident, clear as a bell, and naturally musical. It is a fine instrument, bringing authenticity to every word it says. It puts this movie to a test, because we could not quite accept that voice saying words that sounded phony and contrived. In Heartland, we never have to.”
Paul Taylor in The BFI Companion to the Western wrote, “The crystalline landscape photography and fine performances are complemented by a script which respects the silences of both resentment and mutual resolve.”
It really is an excellent film, I’d say a must-see.