Giant (1956)

Giant (1956)

“We Texans like a little vinegar in our greens, honey — gives ’em flavor.”

Synopsis:
After a wealthy Texan rancher (Rock Hudson) marries the beautiful daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) of an East Coast doctor (Paul Fix) and socialite (Judith Evelyn) — with Taylor swiftly rejecting her would-be British fiance (Rod Taylor) — the couple settle into life on Reata Ranch, where Hudson’s sister (Mercedes McCambridge) is wary about her position as head-female being disrupted; a disgruntled cowhand (James Dean) becomes smitten with Taylor; and Taylor attempts to better the lives of marginalized locals. Dean eventually strikes oil on a small piece of land given to him by McCambridge, and years later, Hudson and Taylor’s grown kids — Jordan (Dennis Hopper), Luz (Carroll Baker), and Judy (Fran Bennett) — find their own way through life: Hopper faces the wrath of his father for not wanting to take over the family ranch, and racist backlash for falling in love with the daughter (Elsa Cardenas) of a Mexican-American doctor (Maurice Jara), while Baker develops a youthful crush on Dean, and Bennett wants to work on her own, smaller spread with her new husband.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carroll Baker Films
  • Dennis Hopper Films
  • Elizabeth Taylor Films
  • George Stevens Films
  • James Dean Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Masculinity
  • Mercedes McCambridge Films
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Ranchers
  • Rock Hudson Films
  • Rod Taylor Films
  • Strong Females
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “George Stevens directed this sprawling epic version of Edna Ferber’s supersoaper”, which centers on Hudson’s attempts to “keep Taylor in line” due to “family pride and masculine pride” — and Taylor sticking “to her guns despite the arguments” (which is “one of the reasons we appreciate her character”). While Peary argues that Dean “steals the film from Hudson and Taylor” as someone who “stands for the new Texas, the instant ‘white trash’ millionaires who haven’t the imagination of men like [Hudson]”, I patently disagree. Upon rewatching this third and final feature film starring Dean — made just before his fatal car crash at the age of 24, after his starring roles in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and East of Eden (1955) — I’m much less impressed by his Oscar-nominated performance than I expected. His use of Method acting leads to mumbling incoherence at times, and as Peary writes, it’s hard to “get a handle on the character.”

With that said, I agree with Peary that a “particularly memorable” scene is the one “where he strikes it rich and gets covered by oil”:

… though I’m less enamored by “the scene where [Dean] — now an older man — drunkenly recites a speech although his audience has long gone home.”

Apparently Dean resisted having much aging make-up applied — though to be fair, it looks pretty awkward on Hudson and Taylor:


Peary ultimately writes that “more interesting [than Dean] is Hudson’s character, who’s basically a nice guy but tries — without complete success — to cover up his gentle, soft qualities so he won’t seem weaker than his father”; however, since “it’s a new time in American history,” “men don’t have to strut their machismo to be giants.” Unmentioned in Peary’s review but of even more interest to me upon this re-viewing is Hopper’s character — a bold young man who knows what he wants (to be a doctor) and who he wants (Cardenas), and represents Taylor’s no-nonsense approach to equitable racial relations coming to full and personal fruition.

Speaking of racial relations, the film’s most notable theme is that of racial intolerance — and the filmmakers deserve acclaim for presenting this in such a straightforward fashion. While modern social justice language isn’t used, we can clearly see white supremacy on dominant display time and again — from Hudson’s huffy refusal to acknowledge the theft of Texan land from Mexicans (one of Taylor’s first comments to him the night they meet), to his annoyance at Taylor humanizing their Mexican-American employees by seeking to know and correctly pronounce their names, to Taylor’s insistence that a doctor go look at a sickly “wetback” Mexican baby. In later scenes, we see even more egregious acts of racist segregation in 1940s Texas: a beauty salon refuses to serve Cardenas once they see her skin color (per orders of Dean); and, in the film’s penultimate scene, Hudson ends up in a fist fight with a bigoted cafe owner (Mickey Simpson) who refuses to serve a Mexican family and treats Hudson’s daughter-in-law and grandson with racist contempt. As Peary notes, this is a “terrific scene” — and though the “wide-screen production is patriotic,” it “still acknowledges that bigotry is widespread.” Peary closes his review by noting that while the “film has slow and hackneyed scenes,” it’s “quite enjoyable.” Sadly, I can’t really agree: while it’s worth a look for its historical popularity, it’s not one I personally plan to revisit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Benedict
  • Rock Hudson as Bick Benedict
  • Dennis Hopper as Jordan Jr.
  • Fine cinematography


  • A powerful (for its time) depiction of racism

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historical importance.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One thought on “Giant (1956)

  1. A once-must for its place in cinema history.

    I’m in general agreement with the assessment given. For all its epic sprawl, it’s not the most exciting of pictures – certain scenes have more impact than others; it’s often content being quiet and sharply observational and there are particular moments of visual beauty. One of the most potent sequences is the penultimate restaurant scene. The film’s main value seems to rest in its re-creation of a specific time / place / culture… and that culture’s shifts. Personally, I enjoy watching Taylor (esp.) and McCambridge in it.

    Wikipedia tells us: “‘Giant’ won praise from both critics and the public, and according to the Texan author, Larry McMurtry, was especially popular with Texans, even though it was sharply critical of Texan society.”

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