Farming in Holywood Movies: Myth and Reality

Ruralism and regionalism are in, cosmopolitanism and sophistication are out, wrote David Denby in a critical piece in New York magazine in the late 1980s.  He noted that indie films have stayed out of Hollywood and the big cities, concentrating instead on the “common” man.

In Denby’s view, independents were arming themselves with earnest fare as much for the institutional support (NEA, American Playhouse, the Sundance Institute) it garners, as for their assumption of virtue and righteousness. But in the arts, virtuous thinking and anti-Hollywood sentiment, like all forms of high-mindedness, encourage solemnity and dullness. Too many indie films of this ilk wander around aimlessly–as if setting diffident characters in rural areas absolves the responsibility of writing good, articulate dialogue.

Rural Indie Films of the 1980s

Up to the late 1980s, if there was a stereotypical independent movie, it would be an earnest coming-of-age of a sensitive girl. Rural movies with their closeups of noble and weathered faces became icons of bygone American innocence labeled by some critics as “granola movies.” Robert Redford reportedly bristled at the association of granola movies with Sundance, making every effort to distance the Sundance Institute and Festival from American Playhouse, which was known for such fare.

Viewers don’t go to mainstream Hollywood pictures to see “losers” or “underachievers,” the typical characters in regional cinema. The portrayal of such people has been left to low-budget indies. During the Reagan-Bush era, American indies attempted to combat Republican triumphalism with nostalgia for rural simplicity. In these high-minded movies, the bright golden haze on the meadow was darkened by clouds of corporate greed, and youngsters came of age while their parents struggled to save the family farm.


Richard Pearce’s Heartland (1979) set the pattern for many rural films of the era. It tells the story of Elinore Randall (Conchata Ferrell), a young widow who moves out West to work as a housekeeper on a ranch. Based on diaries of an actual pioneer, the film examines the challenges and hardships of frontier life, celebrating the American spirit of fierce independence. Unlike later Hollywood films of this kind (Places in the Heart, Country, The River), casting a newcomer who did not look like an actress contributed to the authenticity. A big-boned, wide-hipped woman, Ferrell looked like an ordinary woman.

Heartland begins with the arrival of Elinore in a train crammed with people to meet her employer, Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn), a harsh man of few words. At first, their interaction is restricted to work: She commits herself to give “a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.” But she ends up working harder than she did in Denver, where at least she had her Sundays free. Women in Heartland do their share, but they don’t get the same recognition as men. Elinore would like to own her own ranch because, as she puts it, “all my life I’ve been working for somebody else.”

The film records Elinore’s daily routines: cleaning, cooking, sewing, milking, and sometimes even reading (Dryland Homesteading). The other women are just as tough as Elinore. Grandma (Lilia Skala) arrives on a horse wearing a cowboy hat. “You don’t play with these winters,” Grandma warns Elinore, recalling how her own baby froze to death. Aside from brutal storms (the painful sight of a dead horse in the blizzard), there’s food shortage and the men are leaving.

There’s not much dialogue; for long stretches, the visuals carry the story without the need of words. Emotions are vastly understated: Clyde’s proposal to Elinore is brief and unsentimental. For her wedding (filmed with local residents), Elinore wears her apron and work boots. Later, the pregnant Elinore waits as Clyde goes to fetch a midwife from another farm, but a storm prevents him from returning in time. She gives birth alone but the baby dies.

Celebrating the singleminded commitment to life in the wilderness, Heartland abounds with matter-of-fact scenes that show in graphic detail pigs being slaughtered, cattle skinned, cows giving birth. But the very last image, a hopeful shot of a sunny day, reaffirms Clyde and Elinore’s attachment to the land. In emotional power and stark realism, Heartland bears similar lyrical effect to Jean Renoir’s American film, The Southerner (1945).

Hollywood’s Farming Trilogy, 1984

Indies were not the only movies glorifying the Land. Three studio movies in l984 depicted farming from a female perspective: Places in the Heart starring Sally Field, Country with Jessica Lange, and The River with Sissy Spacek. The appearance of three farm movies in one year, as if suddenly the farmers’ plight was the hottest issue on the national agenda, was probably a coincidence. What was not a coincidence, was that all three revolved around strong heroines. In the 1980s, every major actress in Hollywood sought “substantial,” preferably moralistic screenplays. After two decades of under-representation, women were finally offered better screen roles.


The least sentimental of the three, Country was inspired by newspaper articles about the economic hardships faced by farmers in the Midwest. Though Reagan was in power, the film attacks the farm policies set by the Carter administration. The problems are seen as the fault of government: Farmers were encouraged to expand, adopting wholeheartedly Carter’s slogan, “We’re gonna feed the world!” but, soon after, the administration put embargoes on foreign sales.

A tornado during corn harvest destroys the crops, and with the FMHA (Federal Farmers Home Administration) calling in the loans, the farmers face bankruptcy and the loss of their land. Tom McMullen, the FMHA’s county representative, charges that “something is wrong” with the farmers’ way of doing things and suggests partial liquidation. But the proud and stubborn Gil (Sam Shepard) claims that McMullen can’t look at it “short-term,” that farming is a way of life, not a business, hence dismissing him as “a college boy who knows nothing but numbers.”

The tension between romantic individualism and collectivism is expressed in the intergenerational conflict between Gil and Otis (Wilford Brimley), Jewell’s father. “Our blood goes deep as the roots of that tree in this ground,” he says, “nobody can yank us with a piece of paper.” Watching his father plow, Otis vowed to never leave the place, which he never did, except to fight in WWII.

However, impersonal bureaucracy has replaced personal relationships between officials and farmers. The bank’s president, Walter Logan, is a cold-blooded bureaucrat who subscribes to farming as big business. Gil misses the times when the bank used to loan money on the man, not the numbers, and Jewell tells the banker she would rather be a thief than do what he does for living.

The scene is depressing: In Allison, a town with only 2,064 people, signs of “Out of Business” are common, along with mass sales of tractors and plows. Gil doesn’t know what to do and, under pressure, collapses emotionally. He starts drinking heavily, gets abusive with his children, and finally walks out on his family. It’s Jewell who saves the farm by realizing that collective action is the only viable solution. An earth mother (a modern, attractive Ma Joad), she’s also the one to hold the family together. Throughout the film, an emphasis is placed on the centrality of the nuclear family in providing love, support, and unity. The story begins appropriately enough in the kitchen, with Jewell holding her baby in her arms while cooking hamburgers.

In the climax, the farmers rebel against the government-sponsored auction, but the film can’t conceal the cracks in the mythology of “the land.” “We’re maybe the first generation in the country,” says a farmer, “who don’t necessarily believe life’s gonna be better for our children than it was for us.” But at the end, it’s unclear who the “villains” are: Is the film against Carter and/or Reagan’s policies Made with restraint, and shot in Iowa with local farmers, Country’s style is grounded in specific reality, though, with all the attention to detail, Country perpetuated the American myth of the sacredness of “the Land.”

Mel Gibson’s The River

In fact, this myth has become so powerful that it doesn’t allow for any deviation. In The River, a rich farmer, Joe Wade, pressures a state Senator to build a dame to irrigate his massive land. He hires farmers to break up the levee Tom Garvee (a contemporary Tom Joad of Grapes of Wrath) has built to protect his land. But in the end, the workers switch allegiance and help Tom. Rationally speaking, Wade is right, but he is portrayed as a greedy villain. In the emotionally rousing climax, Tom and his friends succeed in protecting the land from flood. Like Country, The River perceives farming as a dignified way of living, rather than an enterprise.

Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart was the most commercial of the cycle, grossing domestically over $16 million; Country and The River made each about $4 million. The first to be released, Places in the Heart was a prestige production: Director Robert Benton and star Sally Field were both Oscar winners. An ode to togetherness, the central community in Places in the Heart is headed by a young widow and consisted of society’s “weak” elements: children, a black man, and a blind resident.

The success of Places in the Heart could be attributed to the fact that it was safely set in the past, during the Depression. As such, it was less overtly political than the other two farm movies. Benton meant it as a mythic evocation, a film memory rather than a problem picture, unlike Country, which was made in the tradition of the “living newspaper” and hard-edged journalism, showing that hard work is not enough to save farms from foreclosure. Even so, Country was released in October 1984, one month prior to the National Elections, and the filmmakers were nervous about the implied criticism of Reagan’s policies. They allegedly refused benefit showings to avoid politicization, insisting that the villain was not Reagan but “monolithic bureaucracy and government apathy.”

Docu: Troublesome Creek

Of a number of rural documentaries, Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995), a chronicle of the struggle of one Iowa family to hold on to their farm, stands out not only for being deeply personal, but also for its amazing similarity to the plot of the fiction film, Country. Husband and wife team, Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, began shooting shortly after learning that Jeanne’s father, Russell Jordan, might lose the farm that had belonged to his family for over a century. The crisis began when the new bank owners, less sympathetic to Russell’s plight, called in his accumulated debt of $200,000, which he could not pay.

The film concentrates on the Jordans’ efforts to raise money by liquidating the machinery and selling all but the most essential household items. The Jordans receive support from their neighbors (who had their own farms foreclosed), who drive miles through snow just to be with them on auction day. Russell and his wife, Mary Jane, maintain a stoic dignity as they oversee the sale, punctuating the proceedings with mordant humor. Mary Jane occasionally raises an objection, demanding that certain cherished items be saved.

Jeanne narrates the bitter-sweet history of the farm and the family that lived there. Back in the 1880s, her great-grandfather fought off the notorious Crooked Creek Gang. Named after a twisty waterway on the Jordan farm, Troublesome Creek uses clips from classic Westerns (Red River) to underscore the farmers’ struggle as a universal conflict between good and evil. Drastic steps are needed to turn the farm over to Jeanne’s older brother, Jim. But unlike Hollywood’s farm movies, there is no happy ending: The Jordans pay their debt, and son Jim admits the rough times ahead of him. Still, like most of the farm movies, it’s an eloquent elegy to the demise of a way of life.

In recent years, there have been few farm movies. Like Country and Places in the Heart, Stacking (1988) centers on a matriarch, in this case an adolescent, who’s trying to comprehend the morass that constitutes the adult world. Set in the summer of l954, in Montana’s beautiful meadows, the film’s elements are overly familiar: A strong-willed girl (Meagan Follows) coming of age; a stranded woman (Christine Lahti) who wants excitement; a beer-guzzling handyman (Frederic Forrest); an itinerant outsider-photographer (Peter Coyote). Having been made under the auspices of American Playhouse and Sundance Institute, two outfits prone to mistake virtue for virtuosity, the film’s homespun honesty is unmistakable.


Set in a Wisconsin farm, Paul Zehrer’s Blessing (1994), which presents an anti-romantic view of the heartland, may be the exception. A moody family drama the film captures the rhythms of Midwestern farm life in acute detail, with the morning damp air, the barn smell, the austere beauty of the countryside. The members of the dairy-farming family are gripped with boredom and claustrophobia. The autocratic Jack (Guy Griffis) is an embittered patriarch barely able to make ends meet; in fits of frustration, he beats his cows. His frightened wife, Arlene (Carlin Glynn), fends off despair by entering newspaper lotteries and tending her religious statues. Whenever Jack climbs to the top of the silo (to take snapshots), she is convinced he is spying on a neighboring woman. Occasionally, when Arlene voices her suspicions, he flies into a rage, digs a gaping hole in the backyard and orders her to fill it up just to give her something to do.

Of their three children, the oldest son has already fled, and the youngest, 10-year-old Clovis, is in the periphery. The central character is 23-year-old Randi (Melora Griffis), who dreams of becoming a marine biologist.

Family tensions arise when Randi becomes involved with Lyle (Gareth Williams), a milkman and freelance astrologer. They meet at the general store and strike up a friendship that quickly deepens into romance; the fact that Lyle has a wife and child back East doesn’t faze her. In a tone that suggests a contemporary echo of “Wisconsin Death Tripa”, Michael Lesy’s collection of grim photographs, news stories and obituaries, Blessing shows the devastating impact of socio-economic change on a way of life that is out of step with the modern technological world.

If you want to know more about this issue, please consult my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press).