Heartland (1979): Richard Pearce Rural Tale Starring Conchata Ferrell

Set in 1910, Richard Pearce’s Heartland tells the story of Elinore Randall (Conchata Ferrell), a young widow who moves out West to take a job as a ranch housekeeper.

Unlike other films of this cycle (Places in the Heart, Country, The River) , casting a newcomer, who did not look like an actress, contributed to the film’s authenticity. A big-boned, wide-hipped woman, Ferrell looks like an ordinary woman.

Based on a pioneer’s diaries, the film examines the challenges and hardships of frontier life, celebrating the American spirit of fierce independence. Elinore would like to own her own ranch, because, as she puts it, “all my life I’ve been working for somebody else.” Refreshingly though, there are not many speeches, or much dialogue. For long stretches, strong visuals convey the story without the need of words.

Heartland begins with the arrival of Elinore in a train crammed with people. Her harsh employer, Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn), is a 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 more than she did back in Denver, where “I’ve always had my Sundays free.”

The film records her daily routines: cleaning, cooking, sewing, milking, and sometimes 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 baby froze to death one winter. Aside from brutal storms (the painful sight of a half-dead horse, left out in the blizzard), there’s also lack of food, and the men are leaving. “It’s not your fault,” says indomitable Elinore, “We’ll start all over again.” Women in Heartland do their equal share, but they don’t get the same recognition men do.

Emotions are vastly understated: when Clyde proposes to Elinore, it’s a brief, unsentimental proposal. At the wedding, (shot with many real-life residents), she wears her apron and work boots. Later that night, they are in bed, but they are shown sleeping, holding hands. Pregnant, she waits as he goes to fetch a midwife from another farm, but a storm prevents him from returning in time and she gives birth alone. Like Grandma, Elinore loses her baby. “At least we have the chicken,” she tells Clyde half seriously, half humorously.

A realistic film, Heartland celebrates the passionate attachment to the wild outdoors. Nature is not used as a background or external decoration, but as major character. Nature is not contrasted with culture: In Heartland, nature is culture; there is no life outside or beyond Nature. The film abounds with matter-of-fact scenes, showing in graphic detail pigs slaughtered, cattle skinned, cows giving birth. And the very last image, a shot of a sunny day, reaffirms Clyde and Elinore’s commitment to the land.

In emotional power and stark realism, Heartland bears a similar kind of lyrical effects to French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1945 American film, The Southerner.