Director: Victor Sjostrom. Svenski Filmindustri.
Producer: Charles Magnusson.
Camera: Julius Jaenzon.
Victor Sjostrom, Edith Erastoff, John Ekman, Nils Arehn.
Iceland, mid-18th century: Strapping stranger Eyvind (Sjostrom) rocks up at wealthy widow Halla’s (Erastoff) farm one day. She immediately takes a liking to him, much to the consternation of her courtly brother-in-law (Arehn) who proposes marriage to her so he can grab her land and money. She refuses as she is interested in the stranger but Arehn is sure this new man is a fugitive on the run for stealing. Sure of his innocence, Halla believes Sjostrom’s story that it was an innocent one-off and he isn’t a career criminal, but to secure their romantic future together, they go on the run and live as outlaws in the hills. That is until Arehn, who never forgets a slight, finds out where they are hiding.
Director Sjostrom, also known as Seastrom during the American phase of his career in the 1920’s, is more famous for his work in front of the camera during his twilight years, starring in two films for the even more renowned Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, To Joy in 1950 and Wild Strawberries (1957).
It was this latter movie that he is most identifiable with, but he had a much longer career, stretching back to the days when Scandinavian cinema was in its infancy, a cinema that he would help to develop and define.
He also occasionally starred in his own films, like this frigid Western, more of a ‘Northern’ given the locale and was sometimes paired with his soon to be real-life wife, Erastoff.
Sjostrom’s pastoral dramas were progressive for the time in that the wild and rugged landscapes reflected or exemplified the harsh story lines and conflicted emotions of his characters. Iceland’s rough tundra and grassy hills, covering the bare and cold rock underneath, pre-empt the tragic path that the narrative will take. Our two lovers are unable to escape their past; Eyvind cannot, as much as he tries, cover-up his previous mistakes. The land becomes an unwelcome third person in this relationship, envious and spiteful, also represented by Eyvind’s lonely friend (Ekman) who lives with them but lusts after Halla and plots his pal’s death.
Some of the naturalistic scenery is awesomely captured on film and must have been an invigorating sight at the time to movie goers, with crisp waterfall showers and dizzying cliffs that dwarf the humans.
Sjostrom also is sexually liberated enough to inject a risque set-up to Halla’s homestead arrangements. Her farm is staffed almost exclusively by young burly men who compete with each other on manual tasks to impress her. Eyvind secures himself a position by besting all of them with a task of strength, leaving us in no doubt about what this merry widow has in mind for him.
In this regard, Erastoff is something of a revelation. Long since forgotten by film scholars and enthusiasts (she essentially retired from the screen after marrying Sjostrom in 1922), she is passionate and emotion-led, expressive and dramatic with a slightly wild look in her eyes as she buys Eyvind new bed blankets presumably to keep them both warm, baits him into wrestling her pompous brother-in-law to destroy that man’s masculinity and then promptly throws him out when he won’t marry her.
Sjostrom’s films have a tendency to focus on sad little marriages blighted by the cruel hand that circumstance and outside prejudice deals them. Such as the drunken men who disappoint their women in The Phantom Carriage, 1921, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson as the hounded adulterers in The Scarlet Letter, 1926 and Gish and Hanson again enduring a forced marriage in The Wind, 1928. This is no exception, though being silent cinema we progress through a series of extremes. Such is the depth of their love, outside forces lead these two into murder, infanticide, poverty and madness.
As a side note, one of the most impressive scenes is of Sjostrom’s character dangling from a rope on a cliff edge and having to be pulled up. He performed this himself (with a safety line, out of shot) and nearly died when, just as he got to the top, an over-excited assistant let go of the safety line to embrace him.