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Zandy's Bride: Life in the Old West, California's Big Sur

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

Big Sur, May 2013

This photo, which shows the vast, wild landscape of California's Big Sur, was taken by Diliff and is a featured photo on Wikimedia Commons.

This photo, which shows the vast, wild landscape of California's Big Sur, was taken by Diliff and is a featured photo on Wikimedia Commons.

The Stranger: America's Last Pioneer Family

Zandy's Bride (1974) is a bleak, unmitigated portrayal of pioneer life in an isolated Western landscape that contrasts sharply with the intense beauty of California's Big Sur.

Based on the book--originally titled The Stranger: America's Last Pioneer Family by Lillian Bos Ross--it is the story of Zandy Allen and his struggles to understand the intricacies of marriage. Zandy is a difficult man to love, but Big Sur is a lonely place in the late 1800s, and loneliness can sometimes be a strong foundation for a bond between even the most unlikely couple.

Cattle Ranching in California's Old West

Zandy Allen (Gene Hackman) is not a young man. He spent most of his adult life working alone on his cattle ranch in Central California. The ranch is isolated, as are most ranches in the late 1800s. Sparsely populated Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, is difficult terrain. The nearest town is two days ride and supplies arrive by ship about every eight months.

Zandy buys and sells cattle, and occasionally spends time with local Mexican beauty, Maria Cordova (Susan Tyrrell), though it is clear that she wants more of his time than he has ever been willing to give. He is most often alone, with his cattle and his horse.

Zandy's Bride (Original Theatrical Trailer)

Zandy Meets his Bride (Spoiler Alert)

Zandy's Bride is a subtle film, yet every details is important, even when they appear to be simple actions. Every detail in this film is carefully planned to both move the plot forward and draw the viewer in to the hardships of life in Big Sur. For instance, in the opening scene of the movie, Zandy reaches beneath the bed for a box and pulls out a crisp white shirt that is either newly-purchased or rarely worn--Zandy rarely dresses in formal attire. As he removes the shirt, a newspaper clipping appears beneath, an advertisement for a mail order bride. According to the newspaper clipping, Hannah Lund (Liv Ullmann) is a "respectable spinster" from Minneapolis, looking for a life in the West, so viewers now from the start that Zandy is lonely and alone and seeking a mail order bride, a common form of marriage in the Old West.

A bit of research reveals that it would be at least a two day ride for Zandy to cross the mountains to the Overland Stage Line Depot (authentic historical details are also important in this film). Zandy's actions when he arrives in town speak volumes. Instead of eagerly or even nervously greeting his promised bride he watches her from a distance. When he finally reveals his identity to her he rudely refuses to shake her hand. He tells her to follow him to a place where they can have more privacy, but does not offer to carry her bags. He then accuses her of lying in their exchange of letters where she presented herself as a woman in her early 20s. These mild deceptions were not uncommon in mail order bride situations, just as they are common in contemporary online dating.

Hannah admits she is 32. She does not resort to accusations like Zandy, though she does point out that he claimed to be 36 in his letters, and he is clearly in his mid-forties. Zandy ignores the obvious, that they have both lied about their age out of desperation and loneliness, and claims he was completely honest in his letters. Hannah does not back down at this point, which displays an important aspect of her personality--she is, indeed, strong enough for Big Sur. She raises her chin, acknowledges that she has lied, glances over her shoulder at the stage coach driver when Zandy turns his back to her, and when he turns around, she stares straight into his glaring eyes with a look of determination and pride.

Zandy tries to discourage her by describing his harsh existence in Big Sur, but Hannah smiles quickly and nods. Apparently, Zandy is impressed by her determination, for they are next seen at the Justice of the Peace. Hannah removes a bouquet of dried roadside flowers from her bag. She tells Zandy the stagecoach lost her luggage and will send it by ship. Zandy tells her the the ship won't arrive for eight months, but his tone is a bit gentler, almost apologetic, enough to hint at the fact that there is a tender side to Zandy waiting to be revealed.

Liv Ullman, 1966

Norsk bokmål: Liv Ullmann i 1966.

Norsk bokmål: Liv Ullmann i 1966.

Dialogue Reveals Strong Personalities

Dialogue in Zandy's Bride is also skillfully used to reveal the personalities of the characters. When the couple begin their long ride back to the ranch it is clear that Zandy's tenderness will not last long. The ride home is physically difficult and Hannah is exhausted by the time they reach the ranch. She falls onto the bed and, fully dressed, falls into an exhausted sleep. Zandy begins to undress her and she wakes up, surprised by his rudeness, raises her hand, tells him to "wait."

"Wait?" Zandy asks incredulously. "Wait Hell. I spoke you straight. I married you!"

For the first time, Hannah appears to be afraid. There is no graphic nudity or violence. There is no need. The implication of what is about to happen is much more powerful.

The next morning, Hannah is understandably hostile, angry, and hurt, but Zandy defends his actions from the night before. "That was no rape," he shouts at her. "I paid my money!" At one point, he slams his food onto the table in anger. Hannah calmly cleans up the mess and refills his bowl.

Zandy's behavior does not changes. Although he does not rape her again, he is cold and cruel to his new bride. Hannah tries to turn the house into a home, but grows increasingly depressed.

Zandy leaves Hannah alone at the ranch to visit his family, and it is in this scene that Zandy's conflicting personality traits begin to make sense. Zandy's father (Frank Cady) is crude, cruel, and abusive to his wife (Eileen Heckart) and Zandy's brother (Sam Bottoms).

Zandy's mother is tolerant of this abuse. Though clearly not happy about her husband's actions, she does know her place in this isolated society. As Zandy explained to his own wife earlier in the film, "You marry for keeps in this country."

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However, it is also clear that Zandy's mother is intelligent, and emotionally strong, one of many obvious similarities between Zandy's mother and his new bride. For instance, when Zandy's father insults his wife's cooking and throws his food, Zandy watches closely as his mother silently cleans up the mess, just as Hannah did the morning after he raped her.

When Zandy is alone with his mother he asks her for marital advice. She suggests that he allow Hannah to start a garden, but Zandy firmly states that his ranch is for cattle, and nothing else. He is stubborn beyond reason. Although he admits that his relationship with Hannah is troubled, he will not take any responsibility for the tension in his home.

When he returns to the ranch, Zandy finds Hannah's mood has changed. For the first time in her life, she has had time alone. Zandy reveals that he has paid for the marriage license and they both agree that they are comfortable with their decision to remain married. It is a tender reunion.

Early one morning, Zandy discovers there is a bear on his ranch. He tracks the bear and kills it, but the bear viciously attacks him in the process. Neighbors (including Harry Dean Stanton) find the gravely injured Zandy and bring him home. His time spent on recovery enables them to bond.

Hannah announces she is pregnant, and Zandy briefly becomes a gentle, loving husband, but when they prepare to meet the rest of the community for a farewell party for the recently engaged Maria Cordova, he returns to his cruel ways and attacks his wife for curling her hair, dunking her repeatedly in the horse trough. He claims he does this "for her own good," protecting her from the gossip of others. Of course, he does have personal knowledge of the way others view flashy women like Cordova.

Gene Hackman, 1972

Newspaper photo of Gene Hackman, public domain.

Newspaper photo of Gene Hackman, public domain.

Painful Betrayals Reflect the Brutality of Life in Big Sur

The tension throughout the following scenes rises at such a carefully-timed pace it is like watching a work of art in motion. The emotions displayed by all of the characters are so intense that at times it is difficult to watch.

At the farewell party, Hannah discovers Zandy having sex with Maria Cordova, but Hannah says nothing. She spends the night in silence, lying on the ground beside her husband and among the rest of the community scattered around the hillside. While everyone sleeps peacefully around them, Hannah and Zandy lie apart, facing opposite directions, with their eyes wide open while the world sleeps around them.

When the ship arrives with Cordova's fiance, Frank Gallo (Joe Santos) and Hannah's lost luggage, Zandy leaves to discuss business with Gallo and Hannah makes arrangements for her luggage alone. Hannah shows great strength by handling the situation without her husband, but it is clear that his negligence is like salt on the infidelity wound. It is also a way for Zandy to avoid his wife and his own guilty feelings over breaking his marriage vows. He is beginning to see that he is following his father's example, displaying those characteristics of his father that Zandy clearly despises.

When they return to the ranch, Zandy leaves once again, this time to collect the cattle he has purchased from Gallo. He is gone for three months and when he returns it is physically obvious that it is close to the time for arrival of Hannah and Zandy's child. Zandy arrives at the cattle gate and instead of greeting his wife his attention is immediately drawn to the fact that she is growing a garden, which draws the audience back to the conversation between Zandy and his mother who suggested Hannah should have a garden. Although Zandy asked his mother for advice, and his wife responded in the way Zandy's mother said she would, Zandy's next actions show he is a slow learner when it comes to relationships. Instead of showing pride in his wife's independence, he is angry about the garden. He demands that she move away from the gate so he can bring the cattle through the garden and Hannah refuses. Zandy opens the gate anyway and the cattle destroy the garden. Hannah tries desperately to save her precious plants and collapses from exhaustion in yet another carefully-choreographed emotionally painful scene. Zandy jumps from his horse and, with the assistance of their young handyman, carries his wife into the house.

Zandy's mother arrives to assist with Hannah who is dangerously ill. Zandy's mother confronts Zandy about his abusive behavior and his infidelity, then she tells him to leave his own home. Zandy complies. He packs a few items and rides off on his horse. He rides his horse so hard that the horse falls and rolls down the hillside. Zandy wraps his arms around the neck of his horse, apologizing repeatedly in an agonizingly painful scene.

Zandy leaves on a ship to another town. He is tempted by a woman, but turns her down. He finally purchases gifts for his wife and returns to awkwardly apologize. "I'm learning," he tells Hannah. "I want to forget, and forgive." Zandy is, indeed, trying to learn how to be a good husband. He has finally matured and become the man he was meant to be.

Zandy's Bride

The Subtle Sensitivities of Zandy's Bride

Although The New York Times referred to Zandy's Bride as a Romantic Western, it is much closer to a Revisionist Western with a strong, defiant female lead, perfect for women's rights advocate Liv Ullmann. Classified correctly and distinctly from the book that inspired the film, it becomes a masterpiece in subtlety.

Zandy's Bride is based on the novel The Stranger by Lillian Bos Ross. The characters in this story are not cultured, or pretentious. They are pioneers and they are warriors, fighting bears, social prejudice, and an unforgiving landscape. They are fighting for their lives, and they are survivors.

In many respects, it is also a classic coming of age story, although the protagonist experiencing psychological and moral growth is a grown man. Zandy's appearance, like his gruff manners, is deceptive. He is sensitive, concerned about the opinions of other people. Gene Hackman plays Zandy's to perfection. He laughs when he is nervous, and even when he is being cruel, though it is clear that he laughs because he is emotionally confused.

The Stranger in Big Sur

Music, Costumes, and Cinematography

The music, by Michael Franks and Fred Karlin, whose composer list reads like a classic film catalog, reflects Zandy's mood, even when his mood is inappropriate compared to his actions. During high-tension scenes there is no music.

Costume Designer Patricia Norris was meticulous in her work, as well. Zandy does not wear the white hat of the classic Western hero, or the black hat of a villain. He wears a neutral gray, a symbol that his character is not easily defined. His clothing makes him appear bigger than life, intimidating, strong, highlighting the struggles he experiences with the compassion he so desperately wants to reveal to his wife.

The cinematography is yet another remarkable aspect of this film--sweeping, panoramic views of barren mountains with gauzy clouds creeping through; vasts fields of spring flowers; and one of the more memorable scenes showing Gene Hackman on his massive horse, looking very much like a strong, sturdy ship moving through wild grasses and flowers that drift forward, then back in the wind like waves on the ocean.

As stated before, the small details are equally powerful, such as the wedding scene, which is portrayed in such a way to leave the audience with the feeling they are looking at a faded, vintage photo through the use of sepia tones, and the close-up of Zandy's fist hanging helpless by his side as he listens to his father's crude comments on his sex life, comparing Hannah to a horse, just as Zandy compares Maria Cordova to one of his father's cows. Comparison and contrast play important roles in this film, roles constantly highlighted through skilled camera work.

Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth was also Director of Photography for the award-winning science fiction cult classic Blade Runner. Frank M. Holgate, co-cinematographer on Zandy's Bride was the aerial cameraman for The Fugitive, and Director of Photography for the Aerial Unit on The Tuskegee Airmen, Mullholland Falls, Executive Decision, and other great action films.

Clearly, Zandy's Bride is more than a work of art, it is a cinematic masterpiece.

California Big Sur Coastline


Zandy's Bride. Dir. Jan Troell. Perf. Gene Hackman, Liv Ullmann, Susan Tyrrell, Eileen Heckart. Warner Bros., 1974. Running Time: 116 min.

© 2015 Darla Sue Dollman


Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on May 24, 2017:

The story behind this movie takes place in Big Sur, California, which became a major tourist attraction during the 1900s. The land, and the people who lived there, play a huge part in this story. This past weekend, heavy rains pounded Big Sur's already saturated ground and on May 23, 2017, the largest mudslide in California's history took place in this historic area, causing over a billion dollars in damages. When you watch the movie you begin to understand the historical importance of Big Sur to the plot and the characters.

Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on March 25, 2017:

Yes, I found that interesting, as well--that she was able to forgive his behavior and that he was willing to challenge longstanding attitudes ingrained from childhood.

Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on March 25, 2017:

Athlyn, the book is often chosen by book clubs, which is why I chose to write about it--I couldn't find a detailed review online! I think it's emotionally powerful to watch the changes the two main characters experience as they try to build a life together, but my favorite part about this film is that, to me, every little detail is important.

Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on March 24, 2017:

After reading this article, I watched the movie. It was a different story and interesting.

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