Friday, March 18, 2016

The Big Country (1958)

USA, 165 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder, Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler, Donald Hamilton
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Jerome Moross
Editors: Robert Belcher, John Faure
Cast: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors

The Big Country seems expressly designed to live up to the "big" in its title—a tale of pioneering ranchers in the West, the movie is nearly three hours long, shot on California locations that convincingly enough look like the Great Plains and "Big Sky" country, with a handful of stars and even an Academy Award for one of them (Burl Ives, who is very good). The theme music by Jerome Moross is epic, memorably sounding like Marlboro cigarettes and those "beef, it's what's for dinner" TV commercials. The story revolves around a long-standing dispute between two families that is turning into a depraved blood feud. Into this mess comes a man of strength and peace.

That's Gregory Peck, as James McKay, come West to marry his college sweetheart, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker). McKay is actually much more than he appears to be, representing a certain ideal of unpretentious masculinity also seen in John Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man, or later from Peck again in To Kill a Mockingbird. These men abhor displays of dominance as exhibitionistic and unseemly. They have the strength of their self-awareness and don't need to prove things unnecessarily. This confuses people with bullying temperaments, which is approximately where we arrive at what I like best about The Big Country. Pat's family, the Terrills, and the clan they war with, the Hannasseys, tend to see McKay as an Eastern dude, a coward and embarrassment, a troublesome annoyance they have to mind and keep out of scrapes. They don't think he understands "reality." But it's Gregory Peck, folks. You know who's going to end up schooling who here.

The story is more complicated than that—it would have to be, to get to three hours with such rolling ease, laying out a big juicy parable of pride, integrity, and values in confrontation, etc. Halliwell's sees Cold War analogies here, so OK, let's try that. Pat's father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), much like postwar America, is rich and appears generous and cultivated. But he has a grinding fixation with wiping out the Hannnassey family and won't be turned away from it. But the Hannassays are not like the Soviets really, so forget that. They are more like a band of Southern hillbillies, and the differences between the families really seem more on the order of class and class resentments. In many ways it's a Southern gothic transposed to ranch country. Those are the dynamics here.

I think this is my favorite performance by Charlton Heston, which helps me like him more elsewhere, a lifelong struggle. He plays Steve Leech, the foreman of Terrill's operation. Terrill found Leech as an orphan and raised him as his own. Leech is deeply loyal to Terrill and has absorbed many of his hateful ideas about men and justice. He has an instinctual contempt for McKay from the first he sees him, though that also has a lot to do with Leech being in love with Pat too. Even as Leech struts around in galoot bare feet with a bare chest all out of proportion to his head, he's plainly vulnerable and tortured—he comes to the story that way, and the events we see only confuse him further.

Admittedly, it's often a bit on the simplistic skit level, particularly in the elaborately convenient duel toward the end, but I have a weakness for that kind of thing when I'm in sympathy with the values. I like Peck's self-assuredness and his unwillingness to make displays of violence. Some of the best scenes here are when he lets his convictions be put to the test and stands for them, quietly, of course. McKay walks away from a fight with Leech, for example, which so horrifies Pat and the Major that Pat gives up marrying him right then and there. Later, when there's no one there to see the glory (except us and the cameras, of course), Leech gets his showdown with McKay. It's a clumsy, brutal, dragged-out affair, much of it shown in long shots dissolving into one another.

Jean Simmons as Julie Maragon, a schoolteacher and Pat's best friend, is another highlight. Julie has inherited a piece of land that is crucial to the feud between the Terrills and the Hannasseys. Like McKay, she's one of the few sensible people here. You get the sense that she and McKay should have ended up together, except he's there in the first place to marry her best friend and he's just that kind of guy. Simmons's performing style smacks a little of an early version of the "manic pixie dream girl"—that's the Hollywood style as much as anything, which it's probably fair to call a specialty of director William Wyler, whose others movies include Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, Funny Girl, and Roman Holiday.

It's that kind of movie. There are no fewer than six writing credits (none of which is the director, though one is his brother)—but that's how they do it in Hollywood, isn't it? It's the '50s, so there's also an unfortunate Mexican stereotype, which is unfortunately occasionally entertaining. It's big, it's swooning, and it's overdone, carried by a strong story, a decent screenplay, some very good performances, and rodeo clowning as needed for comic relief. The padding is not in the story elements but rather in all the time spent on scenery. Scenes start a minute or two early, run a minute or two beyond natural cuts, and often rest on men riding horses across ground while Moross's epic music saws away. If you're anything like me—someone just a little dubious about Westerns in general—the scenery is often one of the highlights, especially when they bother to shoot in color, as here. The movie is too long by at least half an hour but at least there are those vistas to look at. And the story resolution is perfectly satisfactory. Save it for winter marathons.

Top 10 of 1958
1. Vertigo
2. Touch of Evil
3. The Big Country
4. Bonjour Tristesse
5. Some Came Running
6. The Hidden Fortress
7. Mon Oncle
8. The Magician
9. A Night to Remember
10. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

1 comment:

  1. Another summer project: watch titles I don't know on Jeff's top tens, which probably includes half or more.