NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.1991
Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions
It would be nice to be able to see inside the mind of the authors of some of these stories about strong-willed pioneer women—to see whether, in the author’s mind, the protagonist eventually overcomes some of her wrong attitudes in the years after the book ends, or whether her faults are part and parcel with her entire personal history. In the absence of an epilogue charting the sanctification progress of each of the characters, films like Sarah, Plain and Tall are more open to individual interpretations. Fortunately, while this hinders a reviewer from giving a straightforward Yea or Nay, it can also make certain films enjoyable to watch that might have been relegated to our Not Worth Watching list, under a different interpretive grid.
More historically accurate—in terms of set, costume and thought patterns—than other made-for-television productions in its genre, and put together by a man who has been directing since Michael Landon, Jr. was five, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a cut above its compeers, aesthetically. Its story, too, is not the worn out one of a city girl learning to cope with the harsh realities of life in the country, but of a woman from the seaside adjusting to the equal but different challenges of the prairie. Sarah, the mail-order bride from Maine, unlike her compeers, arrives at an already settled territory with a natural love for children, years of experience in managing a household, and a life story not without its own sorrows. The family that asked her to come is still mourning the loss of their wife and mother, and yet longing to let Sarah fill that place as best as she can. The internal conflict between the hope and the unresolved bitterness is unusually believable, and yet the story is as much about Sarah telling the children about the sea, and they telling her about the farm, as it is about the family’s grief. With all this, and with a vocabulary no more vicious than “Oh, goodness,” Sarah, Plain and Tall has quite the advantage—depending on how you interpret the rest of the story.
Sarah begins her correspondence with her prospective husband, Jacob, by describing herself as “not mild mannered”. It would be unlike Sarah to lie. Her reasons for coming, however, are primarily “to make a difference” in the lives of the children, and secondarily to “know what it’s like to have my own life”—a statement that, given by a different heroine, would have indicated a desire to be free from domestic responsibility. However, since her new “own life” will immediately bring with it the responsibilities of being a farmer’s wife and a mother to two young children, Sarah’s reasoning may, I think, safely be interpreted as a desire to make more of “a difference” with her life than she thought she could living quietly with her brother and his wife. The fact that her move away from her brother brought her under the legitimate authority of another man keeps her from falling into the same category with pioneer girls who want “to make a difference” only as long as they can achieve autonomy at the same time.
Sarah’s move does not, however, place her under that legitimate authority immediately. During the one-month trial period before she decides whether to stay or to return to Maine, Sarah is not Jacob’s wife; she is his guest, which is evidently enough of a difference to give her freedom to speak and act just exactly how she pleases. Throughout the film, Sarah exhibits quite a strong personality, a generous measure of self-confidence, and a zealous sympathy for the children’s loss—all of which stir up conflict between her and Jacob. On good days, she and Jacob banter; sometimes she has the final word, and sometimes she does not. Her more dynamic temperament, and her confidence in the rightness of her own opinion, do not necessarily mean that she is correct, but younger children may not recognize this as easily.
Unfortunately, her greater insight into the emotional needs of the children prompts Sarah to not only argue with Jacob about his attitude toward his wife’s memory or her belongings, but to defy him more than once. Anna, the little girl, also contributes to a mild (and therefore potentially dangerous) distrust of her father’s decisions, by saying things like “What if he doesn’t know what is right for us?” or “Papa doesn’t want us to. I don’t know why. It would be a good thing, though, wouldn’t it?” She is party to Sarah’s defiance at one point, participating in an action that she almost regretfully acknowledges “will hurt Papa.” These things are, of course, very wrong. Unfortunately, again, they work. The other side of the question is Jacob’s “What is right in my house is what I say is right.” This is also very wrong, in an ultimate sense, because it gives the head of a household authority to determine right and wrong apart from the law of God. The writers may or may not mean it in an ultimate sense, however, which might cause viewers, and especially younger viewers, to attack the God-given authority of husbands and fathers, along with what may have been only mild hyperbole on Jacob’s part.
One of the more brief conversations between Sarah and Jacob gives a positive view of the idea of “telling” his deceased wife that he missed her, and that he loves her. I don’t think this is meant to be put on a level with praying to the saints who have gone before, but parents may need to simply let their children know that this is not an appropriate way to deal with grief.
References to Jacob’s wife include his statement that “She was too young [to have children safely]—seventeen when Anna was born,” which might be taken as a judgment about a particular individual’s health and well-being at a particular point in her life, or as a broader judgment about the wisdom of marrying and bearing children at a young age. Jacob also confesses his belief that his wife’s death in childbirth was his fault, because he had wanted another child—a statement that might be seen as a grieving man’s incorrect self-blame for a tragic event, or, possibly, as an indirect jab at those who are not content with a “responsible” number of children.
Religion, though present explicitly in sincere prayers before meals, and implicitly in church picnics, is not brought up (on screen, anyway) as being something necessarily worth discussing before Sarah travels halfway across the country to stay a month; nor is it, apparently, a factor in her decision whether to stay or leave. In this, however, Sarah, Plain and Tall is hardly alone, and I do not mean to judge the point more severely here than in other stories.
Sarah once tells Jacob he is a fool for his apparent naiveté on a certain point, and she once asks the children if they wanted to “be wicked and go swimming?”—evidently considering “wickedness” in this instance a positive thing, but without giving any basis for calling swimming wicked in the first place.
Violent and Intense Content:
A dead animal is shown, with a small amount of blood visible.
A woman screams in childbirth, and the baby is born not breathing. The familiarity of the scene is hard on Jacob, and he is later seen sobbing, pounding and kicking things in the barn.
In a somewhat intense storm scene, Sarah, who had foolishly gone out to look for her cat, and Jacob, who went out to bring Sarah back to safety, are in personal danger a couple of times.
Unmarried couples waltz in one scene, and in another an unmarried couple kisses. Strangely, the kisses on the cheek which immediately precede it seem at least as sexually intimate as the kiss on the lips.
If we knew with certainty that the creator of the character of Sarah, Plain and Tall meant her to be a perfect character, it might have given the review an interesting angle, but I don’t think it would have changed my rating. Unlike most other stories of its kind, Sarah, Plain and Tall does not play its protagonist’s imperfections so positively that we are forced to call them good or quit watching the movie. Sarah is clearly not perfect, from anyone’s perspective, and the job of the audience, since we don’t have the writer’s opinion handy, is to determine by our own standards which parts of the movie display her imperfections. I think the film is at least as enjoyable, when you see Sarah’s defiance as another one of the obstacles the plot throws in the way of a happy ending, as it would be if we thought her sins praiseworthy. And while Sarah, Plain and Tall does not have the overtly Christian message of other pioneer women films, it has also managed to avoid the serious theological errors advanced in some of the more self-consciously Christian films—a selling point, I think.
I have to caution parents about the possibility of Sarah’s wrong behaviors being perceived as clever by younger children, and for this reason I only suggest Sarah, Plain and Tall for children who are old enough to discern right and wrong behaviors, and are accompanied and discipled by their parents.