Heartland (1980)

Very good films often come in humble packages. Such is the case with Heartland, a completely obscure western made back in 1980. The budget was all of $600,000, not enough money today to pay for the catered meals of a major production.

Heartland was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Wilderness Women Productions. The film was based a true story, using letters written circa 1910 by Elinore Randall Stewart. Noted character actress Conchata Ferrell ("L.A. Law", Erin Brockovich, Edward Scissorhands) takes the role of Elinore, while Rip Torn, the film's name actor, ably plays a bearish, gruff rancher.

Sturdy, hard-working Elinore takes an adventurous housekeeping job in Montana. Her mildly bratty preteen daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom) is in tow. She finds life on the farm difficult, but rewarding. Loneliness and a desire for land of her own result in an unlikely marriage to the taciturn, stern, and unromantic Clyde Stewart (Torn).

Certain scenes have the gritty edge of a documentary. This is no Giant fairy tale. Elinore gives birth on her own bed, animals are shown dead and dying, and the birth of a calf unfolds before our eyes. And Torn and Ferrell are not gorgeous movie stars as were Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They are both country and homely, but they display fortitude and determination that few of us can attain in our dissipated and metropolitan modern lives.

Perhaps because of its semi-documentary feel, as well as its blunt assessment of ranch life, Heartland is very convincing. It is a pity that resources were unavailable to promote this realistic western. It did receive the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, while it landed the Bronze Wrangler trophy at the Western Heritage Awards. Heartland marked the theatrical directoral debut for Richard Pearce, a veteran cinematographer (Woodstock) who had earlier directed a few made-for-television movies. Pearce later directed Country (1984), a similarly-themed movie that earned Jessica Lange Best Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.

Heartland shows up now and then on the Starz! Westerns channel, which is where I caught it. Why pay to see a mediocre movie, when you can watch a very good movie that you've already paid for, through your cable or satellite bill.