Despite the title, this is no Western starring William S. Hart, rather this Swedish feature was directed by Victor Sjöström, so far the only Swedish director to be covered in this blog. Like the others, which include “Ingeborg Holm” and “A Man There Was,” this film has a brooding power that draws on Scandinavian narrative style and the vast open spaces of the countryside.
As the opening intertitle informs us, the movie is set in a community in 18th Century Iceland, although it was filmed at home due to the difficulty of travel during the First World War. Sjöström plays Kári, a man who wanders into an established village looking for work. Although the first locals he meets are suspicious, they nevertheless direct him to the farm of Halla (Edith Erastoff), a recently-widowed woman who is managing a farm on her own. Kári proves to be a hard worker and likeable, and he is taken in.
Matters develop when the local bailiff (played by Nils Ahren), hears a rumor that Kári was run out of another town for being a thief. The bailiff is the brother of Halla’s deceased husband, and he has designs on her land, hoping to marry her in order to integrate her farm and his own. Halla, meanwhile, has made it very clear she has no respect for the bailiff, and she seems to be falling for Kári. When the bailiff makes his accusation, Halla challenges him to wrestle Kári and he loses. Nevertheless, Kári confesses to Halla – it is true, he stole in order to feed his family, ran away, and now he will be put to death if caught. He decides to leave civilization, to go and hide out in the mountains, and Halla asks to come with him, abandoning everything she has just to be with him.
Living alone in their hideout shack, far up on the mountainside, the two lovers seem to have an idyllic situation. They are able to catch fish and grow a little food, get clean water from a spring, and they live in love with themselves and with nature. They are joined by Arnes (John Ekman), another laborer from Halla’s farm who has gotten into trouble with the law, and by a baby girl after Halla gives birth. But, a problem is brewing beneath the surface, because Arnes, isolated from the company of other women, is beginning to obsess over Halla. One day, when the two of them are hunting together along a ridge, Kári slips and falls, grabbing on to a branch to avoid plummeting to his doom. Arnes gets a rope and throws it to him, then gets out his knife and, for a moment, begins to saw at the rope, then Kári calls to him and brings him to his senses, and he rescues Kári after all.
Accepting that he can never have Halla, Arnes decides to leave the area. As he is walking away, he sees a patrol of men coming up the mountainside in search of the fugitives. He runs back to warn Kári and Halla, but he is too late and the men arrive at just the same moment and a fight ensues. In fear of capture, Halla throws her child off the cliff into the river below. Arnes and Kári are able to beat off the men after all, but now the couple must endure their grief and guilt at the death of the child. Their internal devastation is mirrored by nature, which now throws a hellish snowstorm at them, and they are trapped in their little shack with no food and limited fuel for the fire. They begin snapping at each other, and even seem to be contemplating murder and cannibalism as they go mad with hunger. When Kári goes for firewood, Halla wanders out of the cabin and freezes in the snow. Kári finds her and holds her until he has died frozen by her side.
Being somewhat familiar with Icelandic mythic history in the form of the Sagas, I can confirm that this movie has most of the narrative elements one would expect from such a source. It is set more recently than the traditional Sagas, but the living culture of oral history there would result in newer stories. Among the aspects that struck me as in line with the mythic cycles of Scandinavia were the wrestling match to decide a point of honor, the harsh punishment for criminals, and the inevitable punishment of people who transgress or try to live outside the support of society.
Meanwhile, the film also has a lot in common with other work by Sjöström, especially visually and in terms of the bleakness and moral stringency of its philosophical outlook. I’ve compared Sjöström with Ingmar Bergman more than once as I discuss his work, and I’ve learned since that Sjöström was one of Bergman’s mentors in film making, so the connection is more definite than I had realized. Folks who find Bergman dull will probably feel about the same way about Sjöström, but it’s fair to say that he deals with somewhat simpler moral issues than Bergman takes on. This movie is more rapidly edited than earlier Sjöström work, and also makes good use of close-ups to build sympathy with its characters. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Erastoff is not a traditional youthful beauty, but a solid middle-aged woman who exudes strength and confidence more than sex appeal. This can hardly be because Sweden was lacking in beautiful women (see: Greta Garbo), and was surely a conscious casting decision. It makes the film feel decidedly more realistic – a Hollywood star just doesn’t look like someone who can survive the privations that Halla takes on.
Director: Victor Sjöström
Camera: Julius Jaenzon
Starring: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, Nils Ahren, John Ekman
Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here.