Big Country, The (1958)

Big Country, The (1958)

“I’m not responsible for what people think; only for what I am.”

When a former sea captain (Gregory Peck) arrives out west to marry his new sweetheart (Carroll Baker), he quickly finds himself embroiled in a years-long rivalry between Baker’s father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), and a rival patriarch, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), whose sociopathic son Buck (Chuck Connors) has a deluded notion that the town’s schoolteacher (Jean Simmons) is romantically interested in him. Meanwhile, Bickford’s right-hand-man (Charlton Heston) — who has long had a crush on Baker — is determined to get Peck to stand up for himself in a fight, but Peck prefers more peaceful ways.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burl Ives Films
  • Carroll Baker Films
  • Charles Bickford Films
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Rivalry
  • Westerns
  • William Wyler Films

William Wyler and Gregory Peck co-produced this nearly three-hour widescreen Western — with an original script by Jessamyn West of Friendly Persuasion (1956) fame — intended to present parallels to the Cold War nuclear standoff of the day. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see Peck’s character simply accepting the bullying maneuvers of nasty Connors and his brothers:

… which makes Baker (and us) wonder what kind of man, exactly, she fell in love with while on the east coast. The gradual revelation of Peck’s views on the world — and the stances he will and won’t take — form the primary arc of the narrative. Meanwhile, we see ample evidence of how entrenched and futile the ongoing rivalries between the fancy Terrills and “white-trash” Hannasseys are:

… with Connors’ Buck Hannassey particularly loathsome.

Heston’s role as Steve Leech — a year before Wyler hired him on to star in Ben Hur — is a supporting one, but nicely played; and Ives won an Oscar for his role as the bushy-eyebrowed cattleman who has far more integrity than Bickford gives him credit for.

The film’s most magnificent feature, however, is how beautifully Wyler and DP Franz Planer capture the wide vistas of Red Rock Canyon and the Sierra foothills. Wyler strategically frames numerous scenes — including Heston and Peck’s pivotal mano-a-mano — within a vast landscape which utterly engulfs their tiny bodies:

… reminding us (as we hear and see repeatedly) that this is indeed “big country.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast

  • Beautiful Technirama cinematography

  • Jerome Moross’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of westerns.


One thought on “Big Country, The (1958)

  1. First viewing (9/28/20). Not must-see.

    Well, it’s certainly… long. And, at 2 hr. 45 min., it’s probably longer than it needs to be. One can certainly understand why the good cast wanted to work with Wyler; he would draw out all the subtext in this otherwise-simple plot and he makes actors look good. And one can see what attracted Wyler to the script: the conflict that grows between powerful (and powerfully stubborn, tenacious) men. One can also see the challenge that appealed to talented DP Franz Planer. America – esp. this part of America at that time – was certainly (as the title reminds us) a big country, which gave him plenty of opportunity for that ‘epic’ look.

    It’s a very safe film – with a traditional structure. No real surprises here in any way. But it’s respectable entertainment. From watching him in this film, one can see where Peck’s careful, judicious performance in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was starting to grow.

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