“One of these days [the Powers that Be’ll] go too far and, well, you know what I’m talking about. I’m an optimist and I know the good comes out of the bad. Things are gonna change. I’m sure of it. I’ve got time. I can wait.”
Henry Martinson, farmer & activist, age 94
Despite what my video guides say, I don’t think that Jim Hanson’s film Northern Lights (1978) is a family film—even though it’s about families, and contains no violence, sex, or coarse language. It’s not a family film because it’s a politically nostalgic one, and such nostalgia is not for the young. Narrated by Henry Martinson, a 94-year-old North Dakota farmer, and dedicated to director Hanson’s grandfather, Northern Lights tells the story of the early days of the Nonpartisan League. The League was founded in 1915 by a former socialist who believed that the farmers themselves could wrest control away from crooked grain elevator operators, greedy bankers, and crooked big city political bosses. It was an impossible dream, but the efforts of working people such as Ray Sorenson (Robert Behling), the central character in Northern Lights, actually made it work for a while. The League won control of the North Dakota state government in 1917. A state-owned mill, elevator, and bank were established. It was the only state to offer farmers hail insurance on their crops. Several other unique measures made the League’s socioeconomic program one of the most far-reaching adopted by any state. At a time when the only stories we seem to hear from the American heartland are of armed militias for whom the common good doesn’t extend beyond their private arsenals and the guards at the farmyard gates, it’s a welcome relief to come across a story which honors the vision of a cooperative effort for a better life for all.
Northern Lights is also an inspiration for all of us who have tried to record, or dreamed of recording, the stories of our own parents and grandparents. This is history that counts as much as, or more than, the rise & fall of empires. Professional historians will always be there to take care of the latter, but too often in our busy lives we fail as chroniclers of those to whom we owe the greatest debts. Jim Hanson certainly acquitted his debt to his grandfather. Well enough, in fact, to garner the Camera d’Or award for Best First Film at the 1979 Cannes festival.
Who will enjoy Northern Lights the most? My guess would be anyone born a small prairie farming town, who still goes back to see the reflected sunsets burning in the windows of the farmhouses and listen to the half- English, half-Ukrainian or German or Polish or Norwegian banter over endless coffees in endless small cafes. Anyone who has ever picked stones from fields, slept in granaries, lain awake listening to the prairie winds, lived by lamplight, threshed wheat with a steam tractor and a belt-driven combine, or sat on an uncle’s knee and steered his brand-new John Deere past sloughs filled with magpies and ducks. If these memories strike familiar chord with you, I can sum up Northern Lights in two words: Welcome home.
Jim Hanson’s independently-made film rings truer than any of the movies made during Hollywood’s mid- 80’s “farm-wave.” Much like the time in which the Nonpartisan League began, the early 80’s saw the ruin of hundreds of farming families and a wave of protest against the banks which had gone into a feeding frenzy of foreclosures. Sally Field won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a young farm widow in the Depression-Era Places in the Heart (1984). Jessica Lange took over from a defeated Sam Shepard in Country (1984). Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek fought both natural and man-made disasters in The River (1984). Each of these films was sincere, and combined some formidable talents, but they lacked what for me is the greatest beauty of both farm and prairie life: understatement. Northern Lights doesn’t overshoot. It follows closely in the footsteps of Italian neorealist film makers such as Cesare Zavattini who insisted that movies were meant “to observe reality, not to extract fiction from it.” Standard Hollywood plotting was “simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts.” The neorealists sought a combination of lyricism and verisimilitude. “Reality is hugely rich,” declared Zavattini in the late 40’s, “to be able to look at it directly is enough.”
How does Jim Hanson accomplish this in Northern Lights? He directs his film much as if his audience were looking through an album of old photographs, which begin to move and speak as we gaze at them, and then freeze back into silence. The director constantly fades the screen to black before establishing new scenes, giving the viewer moments to reflect on what has just been said or done. There are a lot of low-angle shots of the land itself, both haunting and hostile. The idea is not to create illusions, à la Hollywood, but to examine lives. The issues in Northern Lights remain unresolved. Roy tells his fiancée that the bankers are playing their last cards, but they’re good ones. Struggling for the good life doesn’t mean that you get to live it.
Hanson’s work is also helped by fine performances from his supporting cast. Joe Spano plays Ray’s brother, John, who cannot accept that minding one’s own business is not the best guarantee of survival. One suspects that he even sees his brother’s betrothal as an unnecessary diversion from the real business of farming. Playing Ray’s fiancée Inga Olsness, Susan Lynch brings the kind of strength, passion, and radiant beauty that Liv Ullmann brought to Ingmar Bergman’s films. The role of wives & lovers is a key one in Northern Lights. One of Inga’s friends tells her, “I don’t know where the woman’s place is now.” For baser or nobler reasons, the men are often gone during the long cold winters. Struggling for the greater vision, men like Ray Sorenson sometimes forgot the little things that make life more than a political campaign. A clock’s ticking was a poor substitute for a heartbeat. At one point, speculating on the final outcome of the farmers’ struggle, Inga tells Ray that “If we lose, we’ll have each other.” His answer: “It’s not enough.”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Ingmar Bergman and Woody Guthrie meet up in North Dakota in the winter of 1915. This modest film about the struggle to turn the progressive Non-Partisan League into a political force in rural North Dakota still works for me. Visually, in the wind- and snow-worn buildings of Divide Country
towns and farms, and in the weather-worn faces of farmers, Northern Lights rings true to my early memories of life in rural Saskatchewan. Many of the smaller roles were played by locals from the region in which the film was shot. The harsh winter landscapes you see are real. Temperatures dropped to minus 40 degrees during filming, so cold that cameras froze up and only short sections could be shot at any one time. The scenes of threshing grain in a prairie snowstorm, with a giant steam tractor and crazy-dangerous belts hooking the tractor to the thresher, are stunning.
I always appreciate it when a film turns some new lights on history for me. I wasn’t at all aware of the heavy Norwegian settlement in North Dakota, of the depression that hit America during the first two decades of the 20th century, or of the efforts of the socialist-leaning Nonpartisan League to get rights for farmers who were being exploited by railroad companies, bankers, and crooked elevator operators. By winning the state election in 1916, the NPL actually set the stage for the implementation of many of the goals in its platform. One doesn’t hear a lot about socialist success stories in America. The Nonpartisan League also became a minor force on the Canadian prairies, inspiring activists like J.S. Woodward, first leader of the CCF (Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, precursor of the New Democratic Party).
The editing of Northern Lights is staccato at times, giving it bit of a hand-made, cinéma-verité feel. It’s interesting to compare this film to Days of Heaven, both depression-era stories. In the former, the political message is at the forefront; in the latter the human drama of the lovers takes centerstage. Both manage to capture their own pure essence of the prairie landscape—one ragged in black & white (winner of the Camera D’Or award at Cannes) and one flawless in breathtaking color.
Northern Lights offers hope for the future, but no easy victories and some bitter defeats. As my dad might have said, it’s got a good head on its shoulders. When one character says, “Our old life is over; our only hope is to build something new,” he’s speaking progressive voice that’s challenges injustice and heartlessness. We need those voices more than ever. The new robber barons are scenting blood, the sharks are circling, and whatever isn’t fought for can be lost with the stroke of a politician’s pen.
This was co-directors John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s first film. Hanson only directed three other features. Rob Nilsson has made 34 films, his last in 2016. Lead actor Robert Behling went on to make seven more films, Susan Lynch only two. Joe Spano has had a very successful career, with 85 credits as an actor on Imdb, and a continuing role in the enormously popular NCIS television series.