Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Zandy’s Bride (1974)

          Of the many peculiar ’70s subgenres for which I have undying fondness, the revisionist Western is perhaps the most rewarding. Filmmakers in the ’70s went nuts overturning the tropes of a beloved Hollywood genre, using gritty realism to transform Westerns into social commentary. Those highfalutin ambitions go a long way toward explaining Zandy’s Bride, the story of a grudging romance that develops between a son-of-a-bitch rancher and his mail-order bride. While the underlying story is familiar, the sort of thing John Wayne might have made in the ’40s or ’50s, the execution is unsentimental. It’s hard to envision Wayne proclaiming, as the lead character in this film does, that he doesn’t need his wife for sex, because he’s content with “the five sisters,” meaning the fingers of his right hand. Similarly, it’s difficult to picture the Duke ditching his long-suffering spouse every time the local tramp comes sniffing around. None of this should create the illusion that Zandy’s Bride fully overcomes the trite rhythms of its storyline. Rather, these remarks should contextualize Zandy’s Bride as a nasty ride through terrain that, seen previously, might have seemed idyllic.
          Gene Hackman, adding yet another scowling meanie to his gallery of cinematic pricks, is frightening as reclusive rancher Zandy Allen. Eking out a rugged existence on his small California homestead, he sends away for a spouse, expecting nothing more than someone to share his workload and spew children. Matching Hackman’s energy is the formidable Swedish actress Liv Ullmann, who plays Hannah Lund, the woman who accepts Zandy’s overture. She alienates Zandy the moment she arrives, because she’s in her 30s and not the dewy young thing he expected. Having left her old life behind, so she has no choice but to endure his abuse for as long as she can. Once the couple experiences assorted frontier travails together, they fight burgeoning affection, as if warmth is a sign of weakness. Yet the more they fortify their respective emotional boundaries, the more they realize they’re compatible enough to coexist.
          The picture’s evocative portrayal of the natural world makes sense, seeing as how director Jan Troell previously made the acclaimed foreign films The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), which dramatized the experiences of Swedish people relocating to the American frontier. The film’s dour portrait of life for women in the Wild West also rings true, and vivid characterizations by supporting players Frank Cady, Eileen Heckart, Harry Dean Stanton, and especially Susan Tyrell add to the effect. Though Zandy’s Bride is too long at 116 minutes, the ending pays things off nicely, and the picture is replete with gorgeous images: Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth creates the palpable sense of a frontier that’s simultaneously liberating and oppressive.

Zandy’s Bride: GROOVY

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