Jan Troell made two Swedish westerns, sagas of the Swedish immigrant experience in America, that won critical if not popular acclaim in the U.S. It was probably inevitable that Warner Bros., the studio that released The Emigrants and The New Land here, would bring Troell to Hollywood to make an American western. There's some thematic continuity between those films and Zandy's Bride insofar as the title character is a Swedish immigrant, and perhaps more importantly, there was continuity in personnel in that the bride is played by Liv Ullmann, the leading lady of Troell's earlier films and an international star before that by virtue of her work with Ingmar Bergman. She's teamed here with Gene Hackman, hot off his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection and his blockbuster showcase in The Poseidon Adventure. As Zandy, he's an Old West version of the impulsive, boorish, sometimes brutish character he won the Oscar for. It's a type we've grown familiar with by now and just what we'd expect from a sort of revisionist western. Zandy's trying to build up a ranch to get out from under the shadow of his parents, and he wants a woman. Slavery may be illegal by this point in American history, but Zandy acquires a wife through a newspaper advertisement. This is Hannah (Ullmann), who has exaggerated her youth and "American stock" somewhat. Zandy takes her anyway, in more ways than one. Their first night together is marked by marital rape, with Hannah seemingly shocked that Zandy would claim "the right" and Zandy enraged by her initial refusal of it. He quickly establishes himself as a domestic tyrant, demanding sex, housework and sons, and we see his model when the new family visits Zandy's folks. If anything, the old man is more surly than his son, threatening to throw unsatisfactory food in his long-suffering wife's face. Subtly, Troell lets us see, or at least think we see, a certain discomfort on Zandy's part with this scene and a certain deference toward his ma in later scenes. Zandy's problem is that he doesn't know how to be any different, and the film's premise is that he can't learn until he's learned to really live with someone.
The closest the film has to a plot is Zandy's desultory refinement under Hannah's influence and, more importantly, in response to Hannah's resistance. She never meekly submits but rebukes him regularly, all the while accepting her obligations under their transaction while insisting on the rights that should go with it. Zandy may never fully comprehend what she wants but he comes to recognize her virtues relative to the other options in the rough coastal country. If Hannah has a rival for his attentions -- affections would be an exaggeration -- it's Maria, played in characteristic slurred, "earthy" fashion by Susan Tyrell. Ullmann and Tyrell in the same movie is some sort of Seventies summation, and seeing them together you can see why Zandy would stick with Hannah. It helps that she delivers the son Zandy's always wanted -- along with a twin sister -- but Zandy also makes the simple calculation -- he can't get more romantic than this -- that he's better off with her. After enacting their own micro-version of the classic rancher-nester conflict -- she grows a garden that he tramples with his cattle, telling her she's ruined his property -- the wild westerner is finally civilized, or as civilized as he can get, which is still an advance on how he started.
Choosing an atypical coastal location, Troell gives us a look at the West through fresh eyes to an extent, but the film's picturesque virtues can't entirely compensate for a certain monotony to Zandy and Hannah's battles. Filming Marc Norman's screenplay, he catches the subtle evolution of the marriage even as the protagonists remain essentially their same abrasive selves. A naturalist rather than a romanticist, Troell offers no promise that things will be happy ever after for his couple, but his honesty probably went unappreciated even by sophisticated (or cynical) Seventies audiences. They may have asked what there was here to care about, apart from seeing two master thespians take each other's measure? Ullmann is impressive in English -- she'd dubbed her own dialogue in the earlier Troell films -- while Hackman has the more challenging task of making Zandy something other than hateful between his tantrums. How successful he was depends on the attentiveness and sensibility of each viewer, but I suspect that Zandy's Bride tried people's patience. It may have been more trying originally. The movie I saw on Turner Classic Movies was 97 minutes long, but some sources report a 116 minute running time. Did the film lose 20 minutes at some point? If so, was the original even more monotonous in its bitterness or yet more subtle or plausible about the marriage's evolution? The idea of an extended director's cut is a little tantalizing, but I doubt that even its admirers really want it any longer.