When I was growing up, back in the 1970s and 80s, one of the constant companions of my teenage movie viewing life was Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. In those pre-Wikipedia and IMDB days, Maltin's book of capsule movie reviews was one of the few ways to easily access and cross-check information about movies seen on TV and early VHS. I always remember the lingering sense of disappointment when the (otherwise estimable) Mr. Maltin would dismiss or castigate a particular favorite film of mine. One of his reviews that has always stuck with me was his brief comment about one of my all time favorite films (not just westerns), The Big Country. It came down to one word - "overblown" - and what, to my mind, still is a grossly conservative three-star rating.
That word, "overblown," annoyed me then and still does today. Though I suspect there are many out there who may tend to agree with Maltin, I take strong exception to that word. The Big Country is indeed big. It's long, no doubt (2 hours and 46 minutes, to be precise.) Epic, yes. Dramatic...certainly. Sprawling, even. But overblown? I beg to differ.
Despite its inarguable sweep, its vast landscapes of prairie, rivers and canyons, its periodic bursts of violence and dramatic narrative beats, The Big Country is, in many ways, a very intimate, personal story, a study of character, ethics and family dynamics. And, standing in its center, is not the usual, quick on the draw, sixgun-packin' cowboy, but a deeply principled, pacifist hero.
That hero is Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), an experienced sea captain who met Patricia (Carrol Baker), the capricious young daughter of Texas rancher Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), back East, fell in love and, as the movie opens, has given up his former life and traveled halfway across the country to marry her. Pat is delighted to see him, her father the Major seems initially taken with McKay's dignity and civility, but longtime ranch foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) is less than impressed by McKay's dude-ish clothes and (as it seems to him) unmanly, weak behavior. McKay soon learns that things are done very differently out on the Texas range, and quickly finds himself in the middle of a messy and longlasting conflict between the socially-accepted Terrills and the more rough-hewn folk of the Hannessy clan. Patriarchs Maj. Terrill and Rufus Hannessy (Burl Ives) have been enemies for many years, both ranches adjacent to the one water source in the area, the Big Muddy. Both men want to get their hands on the deed to the land which the Big Muddy runs through, but that now belongs to Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolteacher and childhood friend of Pat. Julie is trying her best to follow the wishes of her grandfather, the original owner of the Big Muddy, to allow both the Terrills and the Hannessys access to water their cattle there, but is under constant pressure from both sides to sign over her lease on the land.
McKay is the unwitting catalyst that re-opens hostilities between the two families, after he and Pat are harassed on the way back to the Terrill ranch by Rufus's sons, led by no-good bully, Buck (Chuck Connors). McKay laughs off the episode as mere high spirits and has no wish for any vengeful reprisals, but this affront is too much for the Major and Pat to bear, and so Leech and some other Terrill hands are dispatched to give the Hannessy boys a good beatdown. Later, when the Major and his men ride roughshod through the Hannessey stronghold in Blanco Canyon when it's unprotected, it raises the ire of old papa bear Rufus, who crashes Jim and Pat's fancy engagement ball at the Terrill ranch. Rufus delivers a blistering speech of barely-concealed, righteous fury to the Major and the assembled throng:
After that, all bets are off.
A man of honor and principle, McKay refuses to adopt the local code of bragadoccio and self-aggrandizement. When he sees the sneers of the watching ranch hands when Leech dares McKay to ride "Old Thunder," a notoriously mean-tempered, unbroken stallion, McKay declines to play the game by their rules. Instead, assisted by kindly Mexican ranchhand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya), McKay later spends a whole bruising day mastering the horse, without any witnesses, clearly displaying to the audience that he's no namby-pamby tenderfoot, but a proud, highly-capable man, who only has a need to prove his worth to himself, not others.
Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with the temperamental, spoiled Pat, who wants a man to constantly win her affections by public displays of bravery. As Pat grows increasingly frustrated with Jim, he in turn gradually comes to the conclusion that he may have bitten off more than he cares to chew with this father-fixated brat. In an effort to make one last attempt to save his dying-on-the-vine romance, Jim saddles a horse, and, guided only by his trusty old compass, heads off to survey the Maragon land surrounding the Big Muddy. He runs into Julie, working on the worn down old ranch house that once belonged to her grandfather. The two have an obvious, immediate rapport, and Jim sets off back to the Terrills as proud new owner of the Big Muddy, purchased as a wedding present for Pat, with the proviso that he will continue the tradition and let the Hannessys have equal water access as well as the Terrills. The reasonable McKay happily agrees.
Meanwhile, Pat and the others, thinking McKay a mere greenhorn who's surely gotten lost, send out a search party, led by a disgusted Leech. Steve himself is in love with Pat and is rabidly jealous of McKay, who he thinks is not man enough for her. When the party returns late at night to the Terrill ranch, Leech calls McKay out on his claim that he knew where he was the whole time, calling him a liar in front of Pat, the Major and everybody else.
McKay once again refuses to prove his manhood in front of others, strictly for show, on someone else's rules. This is the last straw for Pat, who calls off their engagement. McKay gently tells her he'll leave the house in the morning, but, in one of the movie's most celebrated scenes, heads over to Leech's cabin late that night, tells him to wake up, they've got some unfinished business to take care of. The two men move out into a wide field behind the bunkhouses and square off under the moonlight for a brutal, lengthy fistfight. Director William Wyler pulls the camera waaaay back, the better to show the insignificance of their struggle, two men battling away like tiny insects against the immensity of nature. As the leaner McKay goes blow for blow with the muscular Leech, the light begins to slowly dawn in the Terrill foreman's eyes - McKay is no mere pantywaist Eastern dude, but is in fact much more of a force to be reckoned with than he had at first supposed. As the fight ends in a draw, McKay pointedly asks: "Now tell me, Leech. What did we prove?"
The next day, McKay visits Julie to tell her that things are through between him and Pat, but that he still wants to stick around and run the Big Muddy. Julie rides out to confront Pat about what's going on. Pat unloads her feelings about Jim, which don't jibe with what Julie knows about Jim's character.
She tricks Ramon into telling them about Jim riding Old Thunder in secret. Pat still has no clue about the true mettle of her fiancee.
She then tells Pat that McKay had bought the Big Muddy for her. Ecstatic at the news, Pat rides into town to apologize and try to win back Jim's affections, but he gently tells her it's too late. When she learns of his plans to permit the Hannessys free use of the Big Muddy, Pat storms out, shouting "You'll never be half the man that my father is!"
Everything heads to a dramatic climax as Rufus, convinced by Buck that Julie is sweet on him, has Buck bring her to their ranch so he can arrange for their marriage...or, at the very least, buy the Big Muddy from her. Spurned by Julie, the craven Buck tries to rape her, but an enraged Rufus intervenes just in time, savagely smacking his son down. When the others realize that Julie is being held captive at the Hannessy's canyon stronghold, the Major and his men set out ostensibly to rescue her - though the Major really sees this as a chance to rid the land of the despised Hannessy clan once and for all. Realizing his true feelings for Julie, Jim is moved to take decisive action. Armed only with an old pair of dueling pistols and accompanied by Ramon, Jim rides into Blanco Canyon to get Julie out safely and try to stop any unnecessary bloodshed. But things don't prove quite so simple...
If the first two hours of The Big Country basically focus on setting up the story, fleshing out character and winding the emotional screws tight, the last 40-plus minutes bring the payoff, and boy, is it worth the wait. The movie really kicks into high dramatic gear in this last section, with Jim's squaring off against Buck Hannessey acting as counterpoint to the final, fatal throwdown between bitter old enemies, Rufus and the Major. The ending could hardly be more satisfying, both emotionally and thematically, and the film closes out on a lovely little moment of contemplation before Jerome Moross' bold, rousing theme music kicks in one last time.
On paper, Jim McKay might seem like a saintly stick-in-the-mud, goody two shoes sort of hero, but Peck plays him with such intelligence and quiet, internal strength, that he comes to vivid life. Peck's McKay is a character that has always struck a chord with me, ever since I first caught this film on TV back in my early teens. He's a man of steely moral fiber and autonomy, fair-minded to a fault. I like good old-fashioned, rootin'-tootin' tough hombre cowboy types as much as the next saddlebum; big, slow grizzlies like Duke Wayne, stoic, laconic loners like Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott, cynical antiheroes like Clint Eastwood and feisty, chip-on-their-shoulder types like Audie Murphy - those are all my kind of guys when it comes my usual western diet. That's partly what makes The Big Country special. Peck's Jim McKay really stands out from the pack. He feels like a truly unique character, pacifistic yet strong, under the surface no less tough, just in a less showy way. His presence gives this movie a different feel than the genre norm. I wouldn't go so far as to say that The Big Country is a western for those who don't like westerns; I think it's just as tied to the genre as anything. But I do think that it may be one of those movies that crosses genre lines, perhaps better appealing to non-western fans than the more typical shoot-'em-up.
As good as Peck and the rest of the cast are, it's Burl Ives who really pops. Completing his transition from easygoing troubadour (playing amiable sidekick to Audie Murphy in Sierra, for example) to bristling, bear-like authority figures, Ives leaps off the screen with ferocious intensity in The Big Country. Building upon his pivotal performance as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earlier the same year, Ives becomes a towering presence as Rufus Hannessey; Rufus might be rough and brutal, his ranch in Blanco Canyon less stately than the Terrills, but as the film progresses, it becomes very clear that, despite his appearance and "black sheep" reputation, he is a man of honor and hard-won principle. Ives brings a lusty, wily life to Rufus, and I imagine it's mainly he who looms largest in the audiences' minds long after the film ends. It's no surprise then that he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film (the only win that year for The Big Country, though Moross' score was also nominated, though criminally, lost.)
In contrast, Charles Bickford's Major Henry Terrill grows increasingly pigheaded and unsympathetic as the movie goes on, with his rigid sense of superiority, bigotry towards the so-called "white trash" Hannesseys, and willingness to trample over anyone who opposes his will. Luckily, Bickford exudes the sort of gravelly charisma and ramrod authority that makes him believable as a seasoned leader of men. His character is redeemed somewhat by being the centerpiece of one of the best moments in the entire film. Near the climax, Terrill is hellbent on heading into Blanco Canyon for a final showdown with the Hannesseys, regardless of all the lives his actions might cost. Steve Leech, a more thoughtful, changed man after his run-in with McKay, for the first time ever refuses to go along with the Major, his surrogate father figure. Terrill's men, more loyal to Leech than the old man, also decline to mount up for a ride into likely death. Terrill eyes his men, tersely announces: "So I'm alone in this. All right. I've been alone before," and gallops stiffly off on his own. Very soon, Steve's loyalty wins out and he charges off after the Major. This leads to the wonderful scene (accompanied by Moross' surging score) as Bickford rides tall and proud to his final reckoning, the massive cliffs of Blanco Canyon looming in the background, Bickford never looking back, his expression unchanged save for a slight, satisfied smirk, as first Leech, then, one by one, his other men, fall in line behind him.
Heston, his star on the rise in the late 50s, at first hesitated in taking what seemingly amounted to a mere supporting role, but Wyler kept after him and eventually Heston couldn't pass up on a chance to work with such a highly-regarded and successful director. It proved to be a wise decision, because not only was Steve Leech a terrific, showy part, but his rapport with Wyler during the filming of The Big Country directly led to his being cast as the lead in mammoth hit Ben-Hur the following year - which of course forever cemented Heston's superstar status. As Leech, Heston tempers the macho swagger and curled lip disdain with just the right amount of contemplative reflection.
Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker both do good work depicting two very different types of women. Baker is stuck playing a rather infuriating, brattish character but plays every scene with conviction. Simmons tones down her natural glamour and is equably believable as the calm, down-to-earth Julie, radiating wholesome goodness.
Just having started playing badass single dad Lucas McCain on TV's The Rifleman that same year, Chuck Connors gets a nice, meaty role as bad boy Buck Hannessey. Tall and rangy like a wolf, and sporting an impressive 'tash, Connors has a ball playing the polar opposite of his Rifleman character - rude, crude, boorish, menacing and, ultimately, cowardly. Buck is arguably the most despicable person in The Big Country, but by movie's end, emerges mostly as a tragic, pathetic figure. Alfonso Bedoya is delightful as Ramon, McKay's one true male friend in the film. Some modern viewers might wince at Ramon's broken English, but Bedoya brings a huge amount of heart and gravity to the line (when speaking of McKay): "A man like him is very rare." Unfortunately, Bedoya was a serious alcoholic and passed away shortly after completing work on this film.
Mention must be made of co-producer and director William Wyler, though what more can really be said of a man whose C.V. reads like a laundry list of stone cold classics? Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress, Detective Story, Roman Holiday, The Desperate Hours, Friendly Persuasion and Ben-Hur. The man was a legend, and The Big Country bears all the hallmarks of a master filmmaker firing on all cylinders.
By all accounts, The Big Country was a problematic production. Co-producers Wyler and Peck were never truly satisfied with the script (seven different writers took a crack at adapting Donald Hamilton's novel, including Jessamyn West), and both did constant re-writes all through production, which meant lots of late nights for the actors, who needed to learn new lines. The stress of wearing multiple hats took its toll on Peck and Wyler's relationship, eventually resulting in a blowout between the two men near the end of filming. Peck wasn't satisfied with his performance during an early scene and wanted to go back and reshoot it; Wyler's adamant refusal resulted in a disgruntled Peck walking off the set. Deeply offended by what he saw as Peck's challenging his authority as director, Wyler never spoke to Peck during the last few days of filming - or, indeed, for many years after the film wrapped. Jean Simmons also reported having an awful time making the film, claiming Wyler bullied her terribly. On the other hand, Ives and Heston had only good things to say about their time with Wyler on the set of the film. There were also assorted budgetary problems, delays and costly, wasted days that often plague the making of epics such as this.
For more personal anecdotes about Wyler and the making of The Big Country, check out this pair of interesting You Tube videos, featuring Peck and Heston:
Despite all this bad blood and backstage trouble, The Big Country comes off as sleek and polished a production as ever came out of Hollywood. The movie looks gorgeous; the cinematography by Franz Planer, and the way Wyler chooses and sets up his shots, show an artful intelligence in how figures are juxtaposed against vast landscapes (mostly California standing in for Texas, other than the Canyon de Chelly Monument in Arizona, for the climactic shoot-out in Blanco Canyon). And I'd be remiss in not mentioning the fantastic score by Jerome Moross - rousing, pulsepounding, immediately iconic. Moross did some good work elsewhere, but this doozy of a score is the one upon which his legacy ultimately rests. For my money, only a few other western soundtracks can match it for sheer majesty: Elmer Bernstein's one for The Magnificent Seven, and perhaps a handful of spaghetti western scores by Ennio Morricone, particularly Once Upon a Time in the West. You can check out a suite of Moross' score here.
The Big Country was a big success for nearly everyone involved (Peck claimed that the film made money for everyone else but him.) More than half a century later, the only success that really matters is how the film stands up creatively, as a piece of entertainment. Personally, I think it ranks among the very best westerns ever made. I've watched it so many times I've lost count, and like all great films, it keeps yielding up new riches, new details or flourishes, each time I see it.
We all have a handful of films that, whenever we catch them in progress on television, we can't help sitting down and watching to the end. The Big Country is one of those for me. It's big, it's long, it's dramatic.
It is, in a word, fabulous.
This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's "Fabulous Films of the 50s" Blogathon. Please click on the banner above or go here to check out all the other great entries from fellow CMBA members.
DVD and Blu-Ray Note: Most of the screen captures above were taken from the 2001 MGM standard DVD edition of The Big Country. A handful come from the Blu-Ray review of the movie at DVD Beaver, which can be found here. Obviously, the Blu-Ray version is the one to get - it looks amazing!
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