John: The Last Norwegian Cowboy

Film review

John

Image courtesy of Films of Norway
John—The Last Norwegian Cowboy tells the story of a rugged Norwegian American in the outposts of Montana, where he chooses to go it alone.

 

GEIR MÆLAND
Films of Norway

I have never dived for pearls in the sea. But I’m still looking for movie gems. Not just any gem though—it’s the Norwegians I “dive” for. Sometimes, I do find one and become genuinely happy when it happens.

This time it is a Norwegian-produced film, with the action taking place in Montana in the United States. But the main character is “Norwegian, and it is an all-Norwegian production with a Norwegian script, direction, photography, and sound.

I mentioned that the main character is “Norwegian,” but more correctly, he is a second-generation Norwegian American.

The lead character, John Hoiland, was born and raised in Montana. His father immigrated there from Egersund in Norway.

Norwegian emigrants from that time were often called fortune hunters. That was probably a correct description, because there were very poor circumstances in Norway at that time, and America was thought of as the promised land of opportunity. Many Norwegians embarked on an unpredictable and dangerous journey in the hope of a better life.

About the filmmaker

Filmmaker Frode Fimland has also previously made films with people and environmental depictions that have aroused great enthusiasm among the audience both at the cinema, on TV, and on streaming services, including Siblings are Forever, Siblings are Forever — The Grand Journey.

Fimland’s whimsical, unique narrative style does something with us audiences. The stories that Fimland tells with his film art progress slowly. In a subtle way, we are seduced into the universe and to the people he wants to show us.

Warm humor and insight into how interpersonal relationships work is among the knowledge and expertise that Fimland possesses and successfully portrayed in his film narratives. Siblings are Forever received the award for Best Feature at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Mont., in 2015.

The storyJohn

The Last Norwegian Cowboy is the story of 94-year-old John who has lived all of his hardworking life on the family ranch of his childhood in Montana.

John has grown up and lived in simple conditions. In these parts of the country, life is not a bed of roses, and one has to feed oneself with the fruits of one’s own hard labor. If a crop fails, it is the farmer’s loss. John isn’t able to secure government funds and has to bear all the risks alone and cope with what is left.

Nor does it seem that John has had any kind of family to rely on in difficult times.

His parents and sisters are buried on the farm, and John is the last survivor of the family. He has no children.

The only one who has been John’s possible helper is Jim, who owns and runs the neighboring farm. The two are and have been neighbors and best friends for 75 years. While John has never touched alcohol and has never taken a smoke in his entire life, Jim says that he has both smoked and drank (and more), without going into more detail when it comes to women or drugs.

It is clear that life on John’s farm has been marked by frugality and hard work. Buy-and-throw-away mentality does not exist in John’s world—just the opposite. 

In fun contrast to the theme of frugality, cars and machines are a keyword. The farm has many old jalopies that would anyone want to shut their eyes at the sight of these rare American models. They are so old that one would think they would neither start nor drive, shift, or brake, but yes, John starts one after the other, and he drives them, too.

The documentary is photographed, soundtracked, and told in a nice warm tone. Slowly but surely, the viewer is taken to a universe that is unknown to most of us. Eventually, the curiosity to experience more from John’s world is ignited, and it is an enjoyable story we become a part of, even though we sense that John’s life is coming to an end and that his life has also been filled with longing. All the cars and the machines that he owns and maintains have probably not provided any kind of compensation for the lack of people around him.

A unique film experience

One is easily drawn into John’s surroundings and daily life. I think I understood the life he lives and has lived. He appears to be a good person, and his story is conveyed in an honest, genuine way. John’s personality is perhaps best described as “made of whole wood” or “gripped vessels” could also be an appropriate description.

I suppose I will always remember the movie about John my entire lifetime, both because it is a unique story about a unique person, a unique life, and it actually is a film gem, purely in terms of the production—on all levels.

I saw John in a movie theater, and I think that it is probably the best place to experience a film like this. But should you not be able to set aside enough time for a nice trip to the cinema with popcorn and all, then it probably will be made available on a streaming service eventually. But don’t wait if you don’t have to—it’s so much fun to see it when it’s fresh off the reels.

SEE THE TRAILER

The Last Norwegian Cowboy (2021)

Category: documentary

Director: Frode Fimland

Script: Frode Fimland & Elisabeth Kleppe

Photo: Frode Fimland & Jason Burlage

Producer: FIMfilm

Run time: 90 minutes

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Geir Mæland

Geir Mæland is the founder and manager of Films of Norway, a Norwegian film-streaming service based in Stavanger, Norway.

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