After making a splash with his carefully detailed, lovingly shot films about the Swedish-American experience, The Emigrants and The New Land, Jan Troell was briefly imported to Hollywood, where he promptly continued to mine the same vein with Zandy’s Bride. This film generally disappointed American critics, though I suspect they’d have liked it better in Swedish with subtitles. Now available on demand from Warner Archive, it deserves renewed attention.
Gene Hackman plays the taciturn Zandy (Alexander), a 38-year-old rancher in Big Sur on the California coast, and a virgin according to his admission (not counting a reference to one of his daddy’s calfs). He responds to a woman’s advertisement to come west as a bride and bear children, and he approaches this as a straightforward transaction, like any barter. He’s disappointed to find that Hannah (Liv Ullman) is older than she claimed, and what’s worse, she has her own stubborn and wilfull notions along the traditional idea of woman as a civilizing or taming influence (see, for example, Stephen Crane’s story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”, or any number of other stories).
We understand that Hannah has probably been working as a servant in Minneapolis, according to one remark she passes about having to clean other people’s houses and take care of their children. She’s used to work, but she’s ready to open up and rebel and claim something of her own before her time is over, and her chosen path is this hard bargain. Hannah foreshadows the role played by Conchata Ferrell as Rip Torn’s mail-order bride in Heartland (1979), and the film can also be seen as anticipating the foreign woman’s view of settling the West in Claude Lelouch’s Another Man, Another Chance (1977). Troell got there first, for all the good it did him, working with a script by Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) based on Lillian Bos Ross’ novel The Stranger.
Time passes with odd ellipses, and not much happens in the movie except for this low-key observation of will and accommodation, the uneven waltz of mutual disappointment and re-adjustment amid the hard work, visual splendor and social rituals of this frontier. Zandy’s mystified, for example, when Hannah waves a poker at him and swears she won’t be raped again as when he brutally forced himself on her exhausted body on the wedding night, for to his point of view, he was claiming what he paid for. His education provides the main arc as they eventually come to a rocky understanding. A key moment is when he realizes he treats his horse with more love than he treats his wife.
It’s a story with no antagonists except themselves, although Susan Tyrell delivers her typically odd intensity as a local woman of Mexican descent who offers a note of trouble. (She also has a supporting role in Another Man, Another Chance.) Eileen Heckart is Hackman’s weary mother on the next mountain over. Her rough pellet of a husband is Frank Cady from TV’s Petticoat Junction. Harry Dean Stanton drifts by for a scene or two as a mountain man, and there’s a bear in the only scene I find stretches credulity. Aside from the actors, the fabulous attraction is Jordan Cronenweth’s widescreen photography. The exteriors look glorious (easy enough), while the interiors shimmer with Rembrandt-esque lanterns and sunbeams amid the smoky shadows. From grass waving in the wind to a rainy window looking out on San Francisco bay, shot after shot is to die for.