Things are tough in Sweden in the 1840s. Farm land is inferior, and the Church holds the peasantry in check.
Karl Oskar takes over his father's farm and sets out to get a wife. Our first glimpse of Liv Ullmann is in a swing. She has long braids and full lips. Karl Oskar and Kristina walk arm in arm. He courts her and before we know it, they are married. It is hard work and little play. Kristina's mother-in-law catches her in the swing when she should be milking cows. Suddenly, there are children! In bed, religious Kristina prays for good weather and resists Karl Oskar's advances for fear of another pregnancy.
Robert, lying on his back and staring at the sky, lets us know what kind of person he is. Karl Oskar's brother is no worker. He dreams and wants to be rich. Throughout the film, Robert is associated with water, a comment on his lack of solid values. He persuades the gullible Arvid with his plans. They share a bug-infested room on the farm where they grudgingly toil.
In the fields, Karl Oskar curses the lack of rain. His crops will fail. A golden wheat-colored texture pervades the film. The characters are earthy. It is dark inside their houses as they huddle, candlelight reflecting from their faces.
Life is boring, and Robert laments his lack of social status. He develops a rosy view of America. Girls tease Arvid.
Grievance is the road to America. Karl Oskar's barn burns, and Robert gets a beating. Kristina's first-born dies, and Uncle Danjel is chastised for his religion.
Ulrika, a prostitute, has obvious reasons for wanting to leave. She is one of the more interesting characters. Monica Zetterlund plays the part. Ulrika never backs down from an argument. She berates the Churchwarden who has paid for her sex and gets into it with Kristina over lice on the ship.
Elin, Ulrika's daughter, sits between Robert and Arvid as the emigrants ride down to the ship. Ulrika combs Elin's hair at an inn where they spend the night.
The ocean voyage is a nightmare. It is crowded, and there is a scarcity of food. There is a storm and seasickness. Accordion music breaks the monotony. Robert and Elin study English.
Karl Oskar and his family set foot in America. The pregnant Kristina lies in the grass, soaking up sunshine. Karl Oskar uses his knife to divide an apple.
They got the idea of Minnesota on the ship. They get there by train and steamboat. I like the scene on the Mississippi River with the full moon and the singing of the hymn. Robert tells Elin about his plan to go to California.
Karl Oskar is satisfied with what he finds at Lake Ki-Chi-Saga. He measures the top soil and stakes his claim by cutting the bark of a tree with his hatchet. He leans against the trunk and shows us he can smile. He has done what he set out to do. The lanky Max von Sydow makes a great Karl Oskar.