Although this film is set in 18th century Sweden and was produced in that country by Victor Sjöström, it unfolds very much like the sort of dark, gritty Westerns William S. Hart was making concurrently in California. With only minor alterations, Berg-Ejvind Och Hans Hustru (known as The Outlaw and His Wife in America) could have been a characteristic Bill Hart scenario, one that could have been remade in the 1950s by Anthony Mann as one of his brooding "adult" Westerns. Key story elements will certainly feel familiar to fans of the genre. The plot concerns a stranger with a possibly criminal past who arrives in an isolated community, where he lands a job as a laborer on a farm owned by a wealthy widow. The widow has spurned the advances of the local bailiff, who she despises, but is quickly drawn to her new employee despite the disturbing rumors about his background. The relationship between the widow and the stranger blossoms at a harvest celebration, but at the height of the party he is confronted by the bailiff with accusations and forced to defend his honor. We later learn that, like Hugo's Jean Valjean, he stole only to feed his starving family, later escaped from confinement, and has been persecuted ever since. Soon after, with the law hot on his heels, the outlaw and the widow throw in their lot together and head for the hills, where an eventual confrontation between the outlaw and the bailiff ends in death.
There are no saloons or cowboy hats here; where clothing is concerned the quaint costumes of this film may remind American viewers of the earliest settlers of New England. But whatever the time period or setting we can appreciate the elemental struggle of a wronged man to attain justice in an unjust world. And as in the great Westerns of Hart, Thomas Ince, John Ford, etc., natural landscapes are used to full advantage, especially in the mountain scenes. What makes Victor Sjöström's film specifically Scandinavian is a sense of fatalism bordering on the mystical: we're told that no matter how fast a man can run, he can't escape his fate, and that is certainly the crux of the matter where the "outlaw" Berg-Ejvind is concerned. Sjöström himself played the part in the stage version of this story and repeated it in the movie, while the role of the widow Halla was taken by his real- life spouse, Edith Erastoff. Their relationship is the heart of the story. In their early scenes together it's implied that the outlaw may be taking advantage of the widow to gain her property. A servant girl who works on the farm, younger and prettier than her mistress, taunts the newcomer that he would respond to her differently if she were the owner. But it gradually becomes clear that the outlaw's love for the widow is passionately sincere. When they take to the hills together they do so in full knowledge that she's giving up her property and that they'll have to live like vagrants, but they do so happily. Halla's philosophy is that love is the only law that matters, and this theme, like Berg-Ejvind's belief about fate, is fully demonstrated in the film's tragic final act.
This movie was the follow-up to Sjöström's 1917 breakthrough feature, Terje Vigen, which first gained him international attention. Personally, I prefer the simpler plot and tighter pacing of the earlier film. For me, Berg-Ejvind Och Hans Hustru would have been more effective if the story had unfolded in a shorter span of time. When we're told that the outlaw and his wife have been living in the mountains for years -- long enough to deliver and raise a baby who appears to be about three years old -- and then discover that they're still in the vicinity of Halla's former property, our credulity is strained. Why haven't they been caught by now? Why does it take the bailiff so many years to track them down? And then, when they're cornered, Halla's sudden sacrifice of their child was inexplicable to me. We might accept this sort of action in an ancient legend or biblical tale, but not in a basically realistic story of this sort. Still, the final scenes have an undeniable (albeit depressing) impact. I can see why this film enhanced Sjöström's growing stature as a top-flight director.
Scholars and silent film buffs will want to see this drama, and will likely appreciate it. But be forewarned: Berg-Ejvind Och Hans Hustru is an impressive film, but it's not a feel-good experience.