By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: A mail-order bride.
Based on the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Lillian Bos Ross the story centers on Zandy Allan (Gene Hackman) a rancher living in the remote frontier of the American west during the late 1800’s. He finds living alone while maintaining a ranch to be an arduous challenge and thus puts an ad in the newspaper for a bride. The inquiry catches the eye of Hannah (Liv Ullmann), a Swedish woman living outside of Minneapolis. She arrives in Zandy’s hometown, but Zandy is initially not pleased as she’s 32 instead of 25 and he feels she’ll be too old to bear him a son. Begrudgingly he takes her on the long horse ride back to his ranch while informing her there’ll be ‘no turning back’. Their relationship starts out rocky as Zandy expects to be able to order her around and have sex with her at will and is routinely abusive, but complains to his mother (Eileen Heckart) that he cannot understand why she doesn’t like him. Eventually the two, after many years and many fights, form a tenuous bond.
The film was directed by Jan Troell a Swedish director and cinematographer whose films The Emmigrants and The New Land gained international acclaim and won him a contract to direct a Hollywood film. Despite the presence of Ullmann, who had also starred in Troell’s other two films, and having the same frontier setting this one did not do as well either with the critics or the box office and culminated in making Troell’s foray into Hollywood filmmaking, which he said he didn’t like since union rules didn’t allow him to man his own camera like he had always done while making movies in his homeland, a short one.
A lot of the reason for this could be that it starts-off with a brutal rape scene, though not as graphic as in some other films, is still quite unpleasant particularly with Ullmann’s pleading blue-eyes and Hackman callously shouting that he ‘has a right’ as he violently strips off her clothes. While one can appreciate the film’s stark reality, as I’m sure in the remote frontier this sort-of thing could’ve easily happened, it still leaves a bad vibe since Hannah softens to Zandy despite his continually arrogant behavior too quickly. Most women would hate a man forever after that, so for the film to take the approach that love could still blossom is a bit hard to fathom. It should’ve at least taken the entire duration for this to occur instead of entering it in already by the second act.
Hackman is fantastic particularly for taking on such a unlikable role. Most other actors who’ve gained leading man status will rarely do this as they’ll feel it will affect their image, so it’s great to see an actor willing to stretch his range no matter the results. Ullmann is quite good too and it’s almost surreal hearing her speak English when I’ve seen so many films of her speaking in her native tongue. Her character though needed better fleshing-out. With Zandy we can see why he behaves the way he does when he visits his parents (Frank Cady, Eileen Heckart) and witnesses the poor way his father treats his mother, which clearly gives him the mindset that treating women that way is ‘normal’, but we get no such backstory with Hannah. Why did she choose to be a mail-order-bride when she’s so beautiful and you’d expect she’d find many suitors back where she lived? There’s no hint of her family history, or why she ended up in the situation that she does. I also felt she was too assertive too quickly and would’ve liked more of an arc where she starts out shy, but after going through the rigors that she does gains an assertiveness that she didn’t think she initially had.
The film ends on a hopeful note. Whether one feels this has been earned, or deserved is up to one’s subjective perspective though I was happy to see some redeeming qualities from Zandy as sitting through it watching him behave badly and never learning anything from it would’ve been too unbearable otherwise. I couldn’t help though but wonder during the many times that Zandy abandons her for months on end that one of the men from town wouldn’t have proposed to her in the process. In either case this ends up becoming the first and quite possibly only movie that could be categorized as a love story without any romance.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: May 19, 1974
Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes
Director: Jan Troell
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video