Note the open space on this poster for the Stateside release of THE EMIGRANTS, Jan Troell’s intimate, painstakingly detailed epic on the Swedish migration to America in the mid-1800s. Meant to signify the new start/fresh slate the families hope to find after their treacherous journey, it could just as easily symbolize the missing film footage chucked overboard before Warner Bros. agreed to distribute the two-parter. Originally mini-series length, Part One still made its mark with a 40 minute trim, but Part Two wasn’t nearly as well received. And no wonder with an hour & 20 minutes tossed. Seen in Criterion’s restored edition, the full cut feels, well, not exactly shorter, but more satisfying. Anyway, there’s no need to binge watch. Liv Ullmann & Max von Sydow (quietly titanic) bring these archetypes to life as real people, with standout perfs right down the line. As von Sydow’s younger brother, dreamer to his doer, Eddie Axberg is exceptional. (Axberg also did the sound mixing, while Troell only shot, edited, co-scripted & helmed. Frontier work-ethic, alive & well in Sweden!) A tough and patient film, Troell asks for and earns trust & attention though he was still a minimally experienced director at the time. And that may explain two unforced errors: a modernistic score that’s good in its way, but puts a big ‘70s time-stamp on the production; and more damaging, an overly-stylized flashback realization of the younger brother’s misadventures Out West.* Fortunately, Troell’s mastery of narrative ellipses keeps things moving along over the few bad patches. It’s the nature of sagas to sow disappointment once the promising journey ends. Sydow’s smile of contentment at the end of EMIGRANTS being the highpoint/pivot. But with the restored scenes, there’s a momentum to each new hardship (weather, in-fighting, Indian uprisings) which helps to explain how & why they stuck it out. Few films get this great American story so right. (NOTE: Think of Part One as PG and Part Two as PG-13 - Family Friendly, not Kiddie Friendly.)
DOUBLE-BILL: *Jan Troell had his own kind of fiasco going Out West a few years later for producer Dino De Laurentiis who conned him into directing (with Sven Nykvist as cinematographer) a hopelessly limp remake of John Ford’s old disaster classic HURRICANE/’79. An experience that quickly sent Troell back to the Old World.