I saw Heartland when it was first released in 1979. More than 30 years passed before I watched it again, but in all that time the feeling of the movie – the blend of emotional resonance and visual poetry, the intimate yet epic story of men and women struggling to survive on the frontier of America – stuck with me.
That’s one sign of greatness...when a movie digs in so hard that decades can pass and yet you still remember what the experience felt like.
I recently saw Heartland for a second time and it’s just as good as I thought it was. Which is to say it’s the best movie about pioneer life ever made.
Based on the memoirs of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Richard Pearce’s film follows our widowed heroine (Conchata Ferrel) as she travels west with her 7-year-old daughter (Megan Folsom) to take employment as the housekeeper of a Wyoming rancher.
Though it’s set in 1910, Heartland depicts a preindustrial world where people survive on the whim of nature and by their own wits and creativity. Elinore’s employer, Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn), is a taciturn Scotsman apparently lacking the time or inclination for the niceties of civilization. Running a ranch way out on the prairie means a life of never-ending hard labor.
Clyde isn’t cruel, not even brusque. Just indifferent to the things that make a woman – any woman – feel at home.
“I can’t talk to that man,” Elinore confesses to her closest neighbor (Lilia Skala), a weatherbeaten woman who runs a ranch 10 miles away.
“You’d better learn before winter,” she is advised.
Heartland is many things. For one, it’s an astonishing detailed depiction of frontier life. We’re with the characters when they rope and brand, plow a garden, cook on a fire-burning stove.
A herd is branded and castrated on camera. A hog is butchered. A calf is born.
(Note: These aren’t “fake” scenes staged for the movie. It’s the real thing. The actors got their hands bloody.)
It is also, against all expectations, a love story. Elinore and her employer marry, as much for economic reasons as emotional ones. And yet theirs becomes a genuinely moving relationship tested by tragedy and minor triumphs.
The acting is stupendous without being the least bit showy. Ferrell, who enjoyed a 10-year run as the housekeeper on the hit TV series Two and a Half Men, has never been as good as she is here. Her Elinore is sturdy and practical, yet still vulnerable.
Torn is her perfect match – a flinty fellow who is always surprising us with flashes of unexpected humanity, humor, and wisdom.
Young Miss Folsom gives a fine performance as the girl...she’s one of those rare child actors who feel absolutely authentic.
And Barry Primus is quietly compelling as Clyde’s ranching partner, a rawboned cowboy who exudes quiet warmth and dignity.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that nobody in this movie seems to be acting, and that is one of Heartland’s great strengths.
The cinematography and the authentic-sounding music are beautiful without ever pushing too hard. Like everything else in this movie, they spring naturally from the environment.
Director Pearce a few years later helmed the similar-themed Country with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, and between his many TV assignments has made several carefully crafted and effectively understated “issue” movies like The Long Walk Home (starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek in a Civil Rights-era drama), Leap of Faith (Steve Martin as a fake faith healer), and A Family Thing (Southern racist Robert Duvall discovers that he is half black).
But nothing Pearce has done comes close to the minimalist mastery of Heartland. If you’re not bawling by the time this movie ends you may need professional help.
Other films in the series “Women of the West”
This film series complements the Big Read and sheds more light on the theme of women in the Old West.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 5: Westward the Women (1951) Not Rated
- October 12: The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) Rated R
- October 19: Cat Ballou (1965) Not Rated
- October 26: Heartland (1979) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.