Zandy Allan is a poor farmer and a bachelor. His smallholding in the steep hills above Big Sur is squalid and joyless. He has decided to obtain a wife because he wants sons to help him manage the livestock, and so he has answered a newspaper advertisement. His wife-to-be is a slight, attractive Scandinavian woman and she is travelling westwards from Minneapolis to meet him ...
A modest and engaging little western, "Zandy's Bride" relies solely on its two stars, Gene Hackman and Liv Ullman, for its interest. There are no stampedes or shootouts, no indian wars or lynchings. It is a quiet domestic piece, an essay on human character - no more, and no less.
"You don't know nothin' 'bout marriage," Zandy is told by his mother (Eileen Heckart), "'cept from pa an' me." And what a baleful example of conjugality the older Allans are. Without charm, verbal skills or even basic courtesy, Zandy's father treats his wife as if she were one of his animals. If Zandy is brutal and inflexible (and he is), it is small wonder. More than half an hour of Zandy's on-screen relationship with his wife passes before we even learn her name.
The only external events in the movie are the barbecue (was that term really current among Californian sodbusters 150 years ago?) and Zandy's foray to San Francisco. The barbecue's main plot function is to enable Zandy to be tempted by Maria (Susan Tyrrell). The San Francisco sojourn is the watershed in the marriage of Zandy and Hannah. When he returns, both partners have grown emotionally. Zandy has learnt to accommodate a will other than his own, and Hannah has become stronger by being a mother.
The two central performances are outstanding. Hackman in particular is terrific. He presents Zandy as a coarse, selfish thug and manages to retain our sympathy. As he sits at the table after returning from the city, his stream of different facial expressions is brilliant, his eyes flickering with conflicting feelings of bravado, hurt and anxiety to please.
The direction of Jan Troell (this being an American/Scandinavian co-production) is quiet and unspectacular but wholly competent. For example, Zandy is jostled by passers-by on the sidewalks of San Francisco, an economic way of showing us that he is unfamiliar with the ways of society. The incidental music by Franks and Carlin is superb, with its salty 'American vernacular' flavour. George Cronenwerth's cinematography is beautifully clear and attractive, capturing the feel of primitive rural life with its rich browns and ochres.
How on earth did they shoot the scene where Zandy injures his horse by driving it too hard up the slope?