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Nothing in this film is overstated or stagey. No one declaims any Hollywood movie speeches. The actors really inhabit their roles. This really feels like a "small" film but really it is bigger than most multizillion-dollar Hollywood productions.
The film is based on the lives of real people. In 1910, Elinore Randall (Conchata Ferrell, who has never done anything better than this), a widow with a 7-year-old daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom), is living in Denver but wants more opportunities. She advertises for a position as housekeeper. The ad is answered by Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn, one of our most under-appreciated actors), a Scots-born rancher, himself a widower, with a homestead outside of Burnt Fork, Wyoming. Elinore accepts the position (seven dollars a week!) and moves up to Wyoming with her daughter. She and her daughter move into Stewart's tiny house on the property. It is rolling, treeless rangeland, a place of endless vistas where the silence is broken only by the sounds made by these people and their animals. It's guaranteed to make a person feel small. The three characters go for long periods without seeing another human soul. What is worse, Stewart turns out to be taciturn to the point of being almost silent. "I can't talk to the man," Elinore complains to Grandma Landauer. "You'd better learn before winter," replies Grandma. Grandma (Lilia Skala) is one of the only two other characters who are seen more than fleetingly. She came out to Wyoming from Germany with her husband many years before and runs her ranch alone now that she is also widowed. Grandma is their nearest neighbor (and the local midwife) and still she lives ten miles away! The other supporting character is Jack the hired hand (Barry Primus).
Elinore's routine (and her employer's) is one of endless, backbreaking labor, where there are no modern conveniences and where everything must be made, fixed or done by hand. This is the real meat of the film: Watching the ordinary life of these ranchers as they struggle against nature to wrest a living from the land. But despite the constant toil and fatigue, Elinore is always looking for other opportunities. She learns that the tract adjacent to Stewart's is unclaimed. Impulsively, she files a claim on the property (twelve dollars, or almost two weeks' pay!), meaning that if she lives on it (and she must actually live there) and works it for ten years, she will get the deed to it. Naturally, Stewart learns what she has done. With merciless logic, he points out that with no money, no livestock, no credit, and no assets, she has no chance of succeeding. He then offers a solution: He proposes marriage. The stunned Elinore realizes that this is the only real alternative, and accepts.
We think that Stewart's proposal is purely Machiavellian---he wants the land and the free labor---but we see that, in fact, he is genuinely fond of Elinore, and they grow together as a couple. She becomes pregnant; she goes into labor in the middle of a midwinter blizzard; Clyde travels for hours on horseback through the storm the ten miles to Grandma's and the ten miles back, only to announce that Grandma wasn't there. This is more like real life than is pleasant, folks. Elinore has the baby all by herself, with no help whatsoever. Their son is still an infant when he gets sick and dies. They lose half their livestock to the vicious winter. They struggle on. The last sequence in the film is supposed to be optimistic: The birth of a calf. Clyde calls Elinore urgently to help him deliver the calf. Instead of being head first, the calf is in a footling breech presentation. He and Elinore must physically pull the calf out of the birth canal. There is no CGI, animatronics, trickery, fakery or special effects: What you see is what happened, folks: A calf is born on a bed of straw in a wooden barn by lamplight. With that, the film does not so much end as simply stop, leaving the viewer unsatisfied, but after a while you appreciate the film as a whole, not just for its ending.
This little gem rewards patience and thoughtfulness. It will be watchable long after most of the films of the last generation have long been forgotten.
If you are looking for the sweet, Arcadian version of life as an American homesteader, then read Letters. However, if you want to see a brutally honest picture of what it takes to make it on the frontier, then watch Heartland. Each has its own appeal. Letters and Heartland are wonderful works, and are highly recommended for any student of the American West.
It gives you a real feel of what the pioneers had to go through both physically and emotionally. Great unheard of movie.
It was done when Ms. Farrel was very young. I had always thought of her as a comedian, but this certainly is not a comedy and she is just wonderful. There is very little dialogs, but that just make it seem more real. Mr. Torn as always is a great presence and just his breathing has great feeling. I must see movie.
I tried to buy the video for several years, finally bought it used from a video store that went out of business. But Yippee! The DVD is now for sale, I purchased it on amazon.com. Not cheap, but well worth it to me. This is a movie I will be watching until the end of my days!
Maybe because UK is an odd market for it but I haven't seen the film on TV or video, which is sad. Has it had more success in US where it might rightly be seen as a quite accurate historical drama?
Always reckon that 50% of a good film is the music and though I'm not certain I think the title theme was a simple but moving clarinet solo of "What a friend we have in Jesus". The film then went on to disprove that! Am I right or wrong?
Heaven's Gate was "the biggest and most expensive ($40 mil in 1980!) Hollywood flops of all time, its failure resulted in the sale of the United Artists studio to MGM" -imdb entry
Heartland cost a few hundred thousand dollars and benefits from great writing, direction, photography and acting. It easily draws you into the beauty, joys, hardships and sorrow of pioneer life.
It's sad that Hollywood sometimes would pour millions into turkeys (based on a director's single big hit) and neglect such a wonderful story.
The movie was produced by the Wilderness Women and the National Endowment for the Arts. You can see the contribution by the Wilderness Women. Just awesome.
The music was spot on. Elinore and her daughter Jerrine go to live with Clyde Stewart on his ranch, Elinore as his housekeeper. The scene where she washes clothes and hangs them on the line made my hands hurt! Elinore befriends Grandma, a German woman several miles from their ranch, and the local midwife. There are several scenes that are quite wonderful, the cow roundup and picnic. The pig slaughter is just what they would have done to have meat for the winter.
Then winter sets in and then reality is right there. The married Stewart's child is born and has died. There is no feed for the cattle. An emaciated horse comes to the house and is turned away.
The Stewarts decide to give up, but then a new calf is born. A new beginning. They decide to go on.
Beautiful movie, from beginning to end. The DVD is glorious.
The movie details the events from Pruitt's arrival in the spring to the following spring. The events are so realistically presented that I came away feeling that I knew these people and what it was like to live in that place at that time. It was not a place for the weak willed or those averse to hard work. A large part of the movie concentrates on what a triumph it was to just survive a harsh Wyoming winter. Any homesteader meeting the requirements for land ownership (completing five years of continuous residence, for example) deserved their land.
I was impressed with the apparent authenticity of the story and later I was not surprised to find that this is based on Elinore's book (still in print), "Letters of a Woman Homesteader."
The open landscapes (this was filmed in Montana) played a significant role. I had to wonder what, beyond the will to live, fueled these people to persist in spite of hardship and I think an appreciation of the land had to be a part of it. The reserved filming and score are an appropriate match for the material. The final freeze-frame in the barn provided a particularly satisfying ending to the story of Elinore and Clyde. The background scenes under the end credits should not be missed. The people who made this movie were fully engaged and functioning at the peak of their talents.
I came away from this movie with admiration for the characters portrayed-- for their mental and physical toughness and their ability to meet life head on.
There are good points. Fred Murphy's cinematography, while not truly spectacular, is extremely lonely and beautiful at points. "Heartland" is at its best when the focus shifts to the scenery, the quiet moments, the simple human interactions - more with their world than with each other. The complete failure of the cast to really feel at home leaves this film feeling cold and anemic. I wanted something heartwrenching and pure like "Days of Heaven" or Pearce's own best film "Country". Instead, I was left with something distant, listless and ultimately, aimless.
This film continues to be a struggle in my mind because there were some very interesting scenes. Scenes where I wasn't sure what the director was doing or which direction he was headed, but somehow still seemed to work well as a whole. I thought the story as a whole was a very interesting, historical tale. I do not know much about living in Wyoming, especially during the early 1900s, so this film captured that image in my mind. The thought of very cold winters, no neighbors for miles upon miles, and this Polaroid-esquire view untouched by corporate America. It was refreshing to witness and sheer breathtaking to experience (though the television). There were scenes that really stood out in my mind, like the cattle-branding scene, the pig slaughtering scene, and the saddening homesteader that didn't survive their journey, that just brought a true sense of realism to this story. Director Richard Pearce did a great job of bringing the view of Wyoming to the viewers, but I am not sure he brought decent players to accompany the view.
While I will constantly compliment the scenery of this film, I had trouble coping with the actors that seemingly walked on the set and read their lines from cards on the side. Rip Torn seemed out of place in his role as Clyde Stewart, a loner that somehow finds a connection with Conchata Ferrell's Elinore Randall. The two as actors have no chemistry at all. Their scenes that they share together are pointless and honestly void of any emotion. The pregnancy scene nearly had me in stitches because of the way these two "veteran" actors portrayed it. The brave Elinore does what she has to do to get the child out of her, while Clyde gives an approving nod when she is done. This is love? Was it supposed to be love? I don't know, I think with stronger characters we would have seen a stronger bond, but with Torn and Ferrell, it felt like two actors just playing their parts. Other scenes that just seemed to struggle in my mind were ones like when the frozen horse "knocks" on the door for food or shelter, the constantly fading and growing compassion that Clyde had for Elinore's daughter (I just didn't believe it), the lack of true winter struggle, and the entire land scene. The land scene especially because I needed more explanation on what Elinore was doing, why she was doing it, and why Clyde would build her a house if they were married! It was these simple events that if taken the time to explore, would have made for a stronger film.
Overall, I will go middle of the road with this feature. There were definitely elements that should have been explored deeper, such as the relationship between these two strangers and the ultimate homesteading goals of Elinore, but they were countered with some beautiful scenes of our nation. These panoramic scenes which, in the span of 100 years, have changes from vast mountains to enormous skyscrapers. While there were some brilliant scenes of realism (starring cattle and pigs), I just felt as if we needed more. Depth was a key element lacking in this film, which was overshadowed by marginal acting and a diminishing story. Pearce could have dove deeper into this untapped world, but instead left open loopholes and clichéd Western characters. Ferrell carried her own, but Torn was completely miscast. Decent for a viewing, but will not be picked up again by me.
Grade: ** out of *****