For sheer grandeur, few westerns rival the scope and stark beauty of William Wyler’s impeccable masterpiece, The Big Country (1958); a visually resplendent super colossus, thundering across the screen in Technirama. Franz Planer’s cinematography is simply stunning, capturing the vastness of an untainted American west in all its breathtaking clarity. But Wyler’s epic is more than just a lovingly crafted picture postcard to a way of life long since blown into the prevailing winds as the tumbleweed. It is an intimate portrait of the ties that bind and those other corrupting influences that can tear us apart. At a glance, it is far too easy to misconstrue The Big Country as just another bloated fifties Hollywood mega-western, and indeed, the vastness of its superb and sprawling cinematography might have sunk the more intimate familial saga at the heart of the picture. But The Big Country is immeasurably blessed by some exceptionally strong performances; chiefly from Gregory Peck – once again typecast as a paragon of virtue (perhaps, because in life, Peck exhibited similarly immaculate character traits), and, Charlton Heston – rough around the edges and not yet as established in his career, despite having portrayed Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments two years earlier. Alas, between that towering achievement and this one, Heston’s career had experienced an unexpected hiccup. Instead of offers flooding in, almost immediately the well had run dry, relegating Heston to TV work until Wyler’s decision to cast him as Steve Leech, the noble savage/foreman rechristened his big screen image as the ultimate he-man.
From top to bottom, The Big Country is cast with exceptional players; Burl Ives, shedding his ‘Lavender Blue, Dilly-Dilly’ congeniality, in a breakout, Oscar-winning turn as the unscrupulous, Rufus Hannassey; Charles Bickford, as his devious counterpart, Maj. Henry Terrill – who is just as spiteful, though masking it behind his contrived reputation as a gentleman; Carol Baker, the Major’s Scarlett O’Hara-esque daughter, Patricia – enterprising but self-destructive; Jean Simmons, as independent prospector/school marm, Julie Maragon, and finally, Chuck Connors – a deliciously callow baddie, Buck Hannassey. These, among other supporting players, are very fine actors. And yet, in a William Wyler production they seem to acquire something more – something better – more vibrantly visceral and truer still to life; arguably, doing their best work for the man in the director’s chair who today, sadly, requires something of an re-introduction to younger audiences.
One of the most eclectic directors of his or any other generation, William Wyler began his career determined to explore virtually all aspects of the film-maker’s craft. Directors of Wyler’s caliber were rare, even during his lifetime. They have all but vanished from our present-era of story-tellers. Wyler’s strengths, his proficiency and keen artistic eye, his ability to morph his particular style to suit virtually every genre, made him much in demand during Hollywood’s golden age. A quick glance at his achievements illustrates a mesmerizing diversity; even more impressive when one considers how often he hit the bullseye with exacting precision. Frankly, it boggles the mind to reconsider how many of Wyler’s masterpieces have gone on to attain the status of certifiable classics: Jezebel (1938 – and winning Bette Davis her second Oscar), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (the Best Picture of 1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture, 1946), The Heiress (1949 – winning Olivia DeHavilland her Best Actress Oscar), Roman Holiday (1953 – Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar win), The Big Country (1958), Ben-Hur (Best Picture, 1959 and Charlton Heston’s Oscar for Best Actor), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Funny Girl (1968 – Barbra Streisand’s Best Actress Oscar) to name but a handful. If a commonality does exist between these masterworks, it is Wyler’s ability to tell highly personalized stories on a larger-than-life canvas; something that, in later years, would become affectionately known as ‘the Wyler touch’.
The Big Country greatly benefits from ‘the Wyler touch’ – the movie’s vast canvas of craggy mountains and sobering flat vistas spreading for as far as the eye can see, easily brought to heel in the presence of a marvelously crafted screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett and Robert Wilder; itself based on the novel by Donald Hamilton. It’s still the tale of a blood feud between rival land and cattle barons; the Major and Rufus Hannassey struggling to gain everlasting control of ‘the Big Muddy’ – a parcel of fertile land, wedged between their properties, with a small sump and a few trees, desperately desired by both men, but inherited by Julie Maragon, who aims to keep it until such time as she can decide for herself who will make better use of such a bequest. To this clash of wills, Wyler telescopes our interests in a lover’s triangle between James McKay (Gregory Peck); a lanky Northerner, unaccustomed to the unbridled and lawless edicts of the western frontier, (the proverbial fish out of water – literally, in these sparsely populated plains) his stubborn-headed bride to be, Patricia, who would prefer her man sacrifice a little of his own integrity merely to gratify her misconceptions about the mettle of true manhood, and, Julie; the schoolmarm with the proverbial heart of gold, sought by the boorish reprobate, Buck to be his bride. Destiny, of course, has other plans for all concerned, James eventually coming to realize he has made a grave error in judgment by falling in love with Pat, openly desired by the ranch’s muscular foreman, Steve Leech.
Leech is the jealous type – sort of – unable to recognize what Pat sees in James. He can’t fight worth a damn and doesn’t ride – at least, not ole Thunder, the fiery stallion from which he is repeatedly and embarrassingly thrown at first, but later, through blind perseverance, tames much to Leech’s dismay. In one of the movie’s smaller ironies, Leech’s admiration for James exponentially grows in proportion to Pat’s sudden loss of interest in him. Pat and Julie are best friends. Now, she attempts to shake some sense into Pat’s fool brain about her fiancé. Jim – not Steve - is the real man; the fellow who can think his way out of most any situation, employing his fists only as a last resort. That moment is played out away from the ladies: Steve and Jim in moonlit fisticuffs that leave both men panting on the ground. Jim may not have grown up rough n’ ready in these wilds, but he has proven his adaptability to some of the harshest conditions and obstacles placed in his way. Steve is impressed. Perhaps, he ought to consider Jim, not a rival, but a good man to know in a pinch and have around as his friend.
There is some fairly intense 'bro-mantic' chemistry brewing throughout The Big Country; Steve’s undying devotion to the Major, whom he regards as something of a father figure, challenged by Terrill’s determinist expedition to wipe the Hannasseys clean off their land, and preferably, off the face of the earth, just a tad too blood-thirsty a vision quest for Steve to wholly partake in the end. Interestingly, Steve’s contempt for Jim morphs into admiration after Jim refuses to surrender to his principles. Clearly, actions speak louder than words. Finally, there is Rufus Hannassey, misperceived at the start of the picture as our no-account villain, exploiting three shiftless sons, Buck, Rafe (Chuck Hayward) and Dude (Buff Brady) to terrorize the Terrill clan. Actually, it is the other way around; the Major and Pat increasingly conspiring to break the Hannasseys; Pat willing to sacrifice Jim to her caprice for a knock-down, dragged-out fight that reaches its own unanticipated climax when Jim rides into the Hannassey’s heavily fortified canyon on horseback alone to rescue Julie, who has been taken hostage by Buck under the pretext he intends to marry her and thus, gain control of The Big Muddy. Rufus agrees to Jim’s request to settle their score with pistols at twenty paces; Buck, deviously endeavoring to gun down his adversary before the count is finished. He misses and Jim, waiting for Buck to run true to form, refuses to fire his pistol in rebuttal; instead, allowing Rufus to see his son for what he truly is – a yellow coward.
With the exception of Gregory Peck’s newcomer, all of these menfolk are variations on a theme of untamed masculinity; Charlton Heston, epitomizing the solitary man of the west; broad-shouldered, straight, tall and square-jawed – in short, ruggedly handsome. However, Peck’s James McKay is the more fascinating to watch; selfless, noble and unaccustomed to the more physically robust challenges of this uncharted wilderness; occasionally derailed in his pursuits because, unlike the others, he does not immediately wear his passions on his sleeve. Culture may separate the man from his instincts, but it does not take the place of satisfaction derived from a primal display of chest-thumping machismo. Yet, even during the fistfight with Steve, or the duel against Buck, Peck’s northerner shows remarkable restraint, or rather, a genuine ‘thinking’ man’s ability to employ wits as well as brawn to effectively bring about a resolution. Like most every western of its era, The Big Country would have us believe in the mythology that these vast spaces were ‘civilized’ without the influence of a good woman…or even a wayward one.
The two female leads featured herein are basic representational femininity at best: Pat – the slightly tomboyish daughter of a wealthy land owner, with a wild streak that can only be tamed by brute force (in short, the girl who would have liked to wear the pants in the family if only she had been born a man), and Julie – self-made, strong-minded, but appropriately feminine; contented to love a man as a woman should – whole-heartedly and for the virtues he already possesses, rather than the one’s Pat so desperately desires Jim to cultivate. Why Pat never fell for Steve remains one of the oddities of The Big Country, because their temperaments are conveniently alike. Instead, she has thrown herself at the head of a man who neither desires to possess nor dominate her, but would bend to satisfy her every wish; all except one. It has always been a convention of Hollywood’s that men of intellectual value are somehow more tepid lovers; hampered in their more cerebral satisfactions, leaving the hot, sweaty love-making to their Neolithic counterparts, who lurch about with penetrating stares and their meaty fists perpetually clenched. Heston’s thug muscle, however, is matured by his exposure to Jim’s ‘other kind’ of manly grace, as is Jim’s mutual regard for Steve. They may never be drinking buddies, but each has come to favor the other with more than a modicum of genuine respect and, even perhaps, an ounce of envy for the type of man they can never be.
The Big Country opens with an exhilarating main title sequence; a stagecoach streaking across these unadorned plains to a thunderous ovation of horses hooves galloping into the dust, memorably underscored by Jerome Moross. Arriving at a small outpost in the middle of this landlocked nowhere is retired sea captain, James McKay (Gregory Peck) who has been anticipating his reunion with fiancée, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) for many months. The stage is met by Steve Leech (Charlton Heston); the beefy, but embittered foreman of Latter Ranch; the most prosperous homestead in these parts, overseen by the superficially congenial, though utterly ruthless, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford); Pat’s father. Leech has lusted after Pat since they were teenagers, even making crude romantic overtures readily dismissed by the lady of the house. Upon returning home from her trip to San Francisco, Pat informed the family she had decided to marry McKay. Now, Leech utterly despises a man he has never met before. His animosity is abundantly clear from their first casual introduction; McKay’s unassuming congeniality only serving to fan the flames of Leech’s imperishable jealousy.
Pat meets McKay in town at the modest home of her good friend, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons); a good natured school teacher put upon by the unwanted affections of Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors). There is a genuine spark of friendship between McKay and Julie that goes unnoticed by Pat, who has idolized McKay all out of proportion to fit her own warped sense of manly grace. But these self-imposed myths are about to rupture when McKay and Pat’s carriage is ambushed on the open road by Buck and his two brothers, Rafe (Chuck Hayward) and Dude (Buff Brady). The brothers make a mockery of McKay’s gentile good nature, simultaneously incurring Pat’s wrath and shame. She cannot understand why McKay will not fight these ruffians. Back at the ranch, Pat informs the Major of their run in with the Hannassey brothers and this prompts Terrill to order an ambush of the Hannassey’s canyon hideaway, despite Jim’s strenuous objections.
Actually, the Major is just looking for another excuse to engage the Hannassey’s father, curmudgeonly Rufus (Burl Ives, in a bone-chilling performance) in a showdown to assert his own authority. The Major has Steve and a posse of Latter’s ranch hands go into town. They ambush Rafe and Dude at a brothel and beat the tar out of them in a public spectacle that is bent on humiliation. But Buck, the ringleader, escapes this assault, cowardly hiding in the back of an open carriage, only to return home and incur the wrath of his father, who already considers Buck a colossal disappointment. To temper their confrontation, Buck lies to his father about having secured Julie’s romantic intentions in a possible engagement. In doing so, Rufus reasons the Hannasseys might be closer than ever to gaining control over ‘The Big Muddy’ – the only fresh water reserve for miles. Julie currently holds the deed to The Big Muddy and has liberally allowed both the Hannasseys and the Terrills access to her sump to water their horses and cattle. Meanwhile, back at Latter Ranch, McKay disappoints his bride yet again by refusing to accept Leech’s public challenge to ride ‘Old Thunder’; a wild stallion no one, not even Leech has been able to tame. Pat misperceives McKay’s refusal as sheer cowardice. But actually, McKay is more determined than ever to break the stallion, only in his own way and good time.
After the others have gone away, McKay repeatedly saddles the violent steed with the aid of stable hand, Ramon Guitares (Alfonso Bedoya). He is as easily thrown many times. Bruised and bloodied, though decidedly undaunted, McKay’s slow but steady approach eventually domesticates the horse. Hence, when Steve and his men return from their lynching of the Hannessey brothers, they find McKay parading about the paddock on Old Thunders back. Sometime later, the Major invites Julie and a host of guests from the nearby town to his home to announce Pat’s engagement to McKay. But the mood turns sour when Rufus arrives uninvited with his rifle in hand. He informs Terrill he will no longer tolerate raids on his homestead and further challenges the Major to reveal himself to his guests by shooting him in the back to satisfy his obvious bloodlust and hatred of the Hannasseys. This showdown ends peaceably, but McKay has already begun to have second thoughts about marrying into this family, as has Pat about taking him for her husband.
McKay and Julie become chummy after he accidentally stumbles across The Big Muddy while on a solitary exploratory ride through the canyons. Learning of its importance in keeping the strained peace between the Hannasseys and the Terrills, McKay offers to buy the land as a wedding present for Pat, but then breaks off his engagement to keep the land for himself after realizing Pat’s love as irreversibly cooled. Leech decides to confront McKay in a midnight brawl outside Latter Ranch. At long last fed up with having to chronically reaffirm his manhood, McKay meets this challenge and, despite being the physically weaker of the two, refuses to buckle or surrender. His stubbornness earns Leech’s respect. To satisfy the lie he told his father, Buck kidnaps Julie and takes her to the Hannassey’s canyon hideaway. But after questioning Julie, Rufus realizes she has absolutely no intension of marrying his son. When McKay comes to her rescue, Rufus informs Julie she would be wise to send him away to spare his life. At the last possible moment, Rufus has a change of heart, suggesting a more telling redemption; a gentlemen’s duel between Buck and James for Julie’s honor.
Alas, Buck is no gentleman and proves it when he prematurely fires his pistol at McKay before Rufus has had a chance to finish the countdown. His lousy shot misses McKay and Rufus orders his son to stand his ground while McKay takes his clear shot in retaliation. Instead, Buck panics and attempts to hide behind a carriage. McKay deliberately spoils his shot, inferring Buck isn’t worthy of an honorable death. Realizing McKay has upheld his part of the bargain, as well as maintained his honor while Buck has disgraced his, Rufus shoots his own son dead. The echo of gunfire draws the Terrill posse into the canyon. But at the last minute, Leech draws his men back, leaving the Major and Rufus to finish their blood feud as lone adversaries. The men kill each other and Julie and McKay depart the canyon for the wide open spaces, presumably to start their lives anew as man and wife.
The Big Country is a viscerally stirring masterpiece, although at the time of its theatrical release it was regarded as little more than a middling western. Yet, there is something refreshingly primal about the relationships director, William Wyler fosters; the implied sensuality in these shifting male/female bonds, played in sharp contrast to the overtly confrontational and testosterone-infused prowess exercised within the company of men. The most compelling of these adversarial relationships is arguably, Leech and McKay. Both Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston are at the top of their game in this movie; instinctually representatives of the polar opposites in the male animal. Peck, as has already been discussed, is playing to type as the man of integrity – an onscreen persona equally cultivated in his private life. Heston’s performance is the breakthrough, diametrically different from the real man, and, riveting in all its complexity. Even today, Heston’s superior handling of Steve Leech’s raw persona is something of a revelation. It would eventually cause William Wyler to consider casting him as the lead in his epic and Oscar-winning remake of Ben-Hur (1959).
Conversely, Carroll Baker’s Pat and Jean Simons’ Julie represent two sides of conflicted femininity; the first fundamentally flawed and destined to live perpetually dissatisfied and unhappily ever after; the second the quintessential clear-eyed gal, long matured beyond those childhood fantasies about male heroism. Julie understands human imperfection – male imperfection even better, perhaps. She has had to come to terms with life, coming from nothing and equally values hard work and personal growth, along the way establishing her own creed and mottos by which to live. In many ways, Julie’s the real woman in this big country while Pat, at least intellectually, has remained as the adolescent tomboy from her youth, wearing dresses now, but still very much filling her head with notions of the proverbial white knight astride his steed. She fancies herself the princess of this piece, when time instead will bear her out as a variation on the wicked queen. It isn’t all Pat’s doing. After all, she is the Major’s daughter and, as such, a woman largely fostered by her father’s pride. What was it they used to say about pride…coming before…?
Finally, we doff our caps to the formidable contributions of both Charles Bickford, as Major Terrill and Burl Ives, in his Oscar-winning role as Rufus. The genius herein is how William Wyler gradually illustrates the startling similarities between these two life-long adversaries; Wyler drawing on basic parallels (ego, drive, and, jealousy) to narrow the chasm of trait disparities between a seemingly upstanding citizen and the curmudgeonly hermit from the hills. Both men are devoted to their families. Each is hell-bent on destroying the other, merely for want of the same thing. In a perfect world, these two might have formed an alliance to rule these wide open spaces. Instead, they have devoted themselves to the willful destruction of everything each has worked so hard to obtain. The Big Country deserves a bigger profile than it currently possesses among critics. I would sincerely rank it as one of the top 5 western movies of all time; just behind The Magnificent Seven (1960), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956) and High Noon (1952).
Initially, The Big Country had its debut as a Wal-Mart exclusive in the U.S. – an idiotic and now mostly defunct practice. I mean, what were the studios thinking, limiting the availability of a 50+ year old movie to only one vendor and not even promoting the exclusivity as such? Mercifully, The Big Country has long since become a mainstream release, and, it is about time too. MGM/Fox Home Video has done a magnificent job remastering The Big Country in 1080p. The results speak for themselves. There’s no point comparing the image quality herein to their tired old DVD release except to say that in hi-def the image is as near to perfect as we are likely to have without a full-blown restoration being performed. All in all, the Blu-ray is spectacular, sporting razor sharp clarity, vibrant colors, solid contrast levels and an impressive amount of indigenous film grain. The opening main titles have been color corrected to extol their original copper hue (on the DVD they looked almost B&W).
There are a few very brief instances of gate weave and one fleeting close-up of Gregory Peck, horrendously marred by age-related artefacts (it’s odd, looking almost to have been inserted from second or third generation source materials archived from under a rock). Otherwise, this Blu-ray is very fine indeed. The DTS 5.1 audio really ratchets up Jerome Moross’ underscore, full of brass and bombast. Dialogue is directionalized and sounds fairly natural, with SFX perfectly integrated. My singular regret is the extras; only a vintage – and badly worn – featurette and TV spots. No audio commentary or new featurette on the making of the film. The Big Country deserves better. But otherwise, this disc comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)