“Heartland” places the audience almost a hundred years back in time, a technique that not only captivates ones mind, but also allows for the unique opportunity to witness first hand history being re-told. Richard Pearce the director of “Heartland” saw a chance within this film to white out previous interpretations of American homesteading; Pearce paints a radically new picture, which may more accurately reflect the truth behind homesteaders. The inspirations behind Pearce’s documentary “Heartland” were the personal journals of Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Stewart’s journals were published in 1914 in the form of a diary titled “Letters of a Women Homesteader” these enriched historical documents were used by Pearce in such a way that neither Stewart nor anybody else would have ever suspected.
Heartland first and foremost is a story of survival. Clyde Stewart and Elinore Randall Stewart are followed through their daily life by Pearce, their struggles embody American homesteaders across the west and their own efforts to survive in the extreme cultural and climatic conditions they all faced. Scarcity of life in all forms is a theme that is driven hard throughout Pearce’s film. The absence of food, wood, water and life create an absence of hope among the homesteaders. For Pearce homesteading was a last resort, an opportunity in a world which opportunities are limited to succeed. The grind and grit of frontier life is truly captured through Pearce’s distinctive directorial approach. His exclusive approach allows for the viewer to be almost transported back in time witness first hand to the butcher of a live pig and many other daily frontier life chores. Pearce’s depiction of homesteading within his film “Heartland” contradicts his main source in almost all facets, thus creating a whorl wind of controversy regarding Pearce’s intensions behind his film.
Elinore Pruitt Stewart describes life dramatically different from the one “Heartland” reveals. Pearce drew upon this distinction to refute prior beliefs and truths carried by the Letters of a Women Homesteader. The Letters describe nature as a bountiful playground rich with discovery and treasures. Stewart describes a situation within her journals in which she is caught in a compromising position ” here I was thirty or forty miles from home, in the mountains were no one goes in the winter and were I knew the so got ten to fifteen feet deep”(Letters p.33). Stewart’s casual attitude about this situation she has found herself in, along with the fact she did survive when she discovered safe haven within a conveniently placed log cabin, directs the reader/ historical audience to draw upon false conclusions of the homesteading life. Pearce saw this blemish, and through his work of art was able to capture the true essence of the unforgiving climatic factors of homesteading.
Strong winds sweep across a desolate barren landscape smacking into the cabin of Clyde and Elinore Stewart, winters are harsh and when you weren’t surviving one you were preparing for the next to come, a threat constantly on the minds of homesteaders. Pearce characterizes the winter as death. Within Pearce’s film he attempts to relay this message to the audience on several occasions. For instance there is a scene within “Heartland” were it is the died of winter, and a stray horse shows up at the door step of Clyde and Elinore’s cabin. The boney horse is starving and freezing to death at the same time, symbolizing the death that was truly at their doorsteps. If you strayed too far or didn’t give proper respect to the winter you were died, this is the feeling Pearce was attempting to capture. A vividly different image than the letters portrayed.
Pearce finds it extremely important in his film to make drastic differences from his primary source Letters of a Women Homesteader. This distinction between the two challenges the audience to reveal for themselves which medium more accurately conveys the truth of homesteading. In both the movie and book death is a strong subject. Within the Letters Stewart describes the funeral of a young girl ” they buried her by moonlight down back of the orchard under the big elm where the children always had their swing” she later adds ” the mockingbirds began to swing and they sang all that dewy night” (Letters p.39). The image that comes to mind when reading this passage is one that death is unfortunate and with death comes the mourning of the frontier as a whole. Pearce reveals death in a dramatically different light in his film.
Death is a constant theme of “Heartland”, a message Pearce really wanted to drive home. Death was always on the mind of the homesteader, and it wasn’t as glamorous as Stewarts letters would have you believe. Pearce discloses death to his audience as a doomed almost inescapable trap. When Clyde and Elinores infant baby dies they are forced to emotionlessly burry the child. Pearce sets up a dark foggy scene where Clyde and Elinore are seen in the distance putting to rest their infant child beneath the branches of a dying tree. Pearce wants the audience to see death for what it was, homesteaders were constantly surrounded by it, and almost came to except it, a feeling you would never get from his primary source.
Homesteading overall was exploited in Stewart’s letters; she painted a picture of the success and joy that came along with homesteading. Her letters urged women to stand up and realize their strengths. Stewart said within her letters “I am the luckiest women finding really lovely people and having really happy experiences. Good things are constantly happening to me” (Letters p.62). These statements oversimplify a homesteader’s life and are common place throughout the letters; a point Pearce really wanted to hit upon with his alteration of the homesteading experience.
Homesteading within Heartland is no bowl of peaches, a feeling one might get from reading Stewarts letters. Stewart had different intensions behind her letters then accurately conveying the experiences of homesteading, her intensions had a much more political ring. The letters were released at the height of the women’s movement in the U.S. Stewarts letters served as a rallying cry for women to stand up for their rights. The letters therefore had to signify a strong woman who was capable of over coming any obstacle. The importance to Stewart to create a character whom embodied these characteristics was more important then the historical accuracy of the letters. This was Pearce’s main focus when creating “Heartland”; he recognized the opportunity to retell history the right way.
Homesteading had only one truth to Pearce FAILURE. Homesteaders had all the odds stacked up against them; there land was mountainous, desert, or otherwise unsuited for agriculture (Homesteaders). They were often extremely poor, unable to afford tools or proper machinery, and saw homesteading as a last their option (Homesteaders). All of these factors took a tool on the homesteaders; from 1863 to 1880 nearly 500,000 entries were filed under the Homestead Act for approximately 56 million acres, however nearly 50% of the applicants were able to bring their homesteads to patent (Homesteaders). A failure fate of 50%, half of all homesteaders failed, a conclusion you would never imagine from reading Stewarts Letters, this was the true motivation behind “Heartland”.
Heartland grants the viewer with the unique opportunity to witness first hand the reconstruction of history. The use of the letters as a primary source is a brilliant technique used by Pearce he refutes the prior beliefs of homesteading, while at the same time his film is able to retell history. The historical contributions “Heartland” makes are unmatched by any other film. Heartland is a remarkable film that serves dually as a masterful work of art and an important piece of history.