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Film Review - The Big Country (1958)
'The Big Country' is a Western, made in 1958 and directed by the respected William Wyler. It stars the top notch cast list of Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Caroll Baker, Chuck Connors, and Burl Ives. Even though it is a Western, this film is really a quite savage indictment of the cliched Wild West philosophy of men who believe it is right to live by the gun and settle disputes in a terminal way. My opinion is that the cast of this film is excellent, several characters are exceptional, the script is thought provoking, the dialogue is first rate, and the musical score is one of the best in movie history. A great movie.
There is a minor plot spoiler on this page, which indicates whether a particular character survives the film. This paragraph is in bold type, and will be labelled as a plot spoiler.
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WHAT'S THE STORY?
Refined Eastern gentleman Jim McKay travels to the wild, untamed West to meet up with and marry his sweetheart and fiancée Pat Terrill. From the minute he steps out of the stagecoach on arrival in the 'town' of San Rafael, he seems a fish out of water, elegantly dressed as he is with a grey bowler hat on his head. But that doesn't worry McKay; just so long as he can be with Pat, with whom he's planning a new, loving, and peaceful life. However he very soon comes to realise that a peaceful life is not to be; he's been pitched into the middle of a bloody feud between two local families - and specifically the two old patriarchs of these families - and the pressure is quickly put upon McKay to take sides.
One family is the Terrills, the family of McKay's fiancée, where everyone is under the thumb of affluent Major Henry Terrill, Pat's father. He owns the ranch where Jim is staying as a guest. The other family is a bunch of roughnecks led by Rufus Hannassey. He owns a ramshackle ranch some distance away. On the face of it, there is no contest; Major Terrill seems very civilised and respectable, living in finery and with servants, whereas the Hannasseys are described as a 'pest' and a 'plague', and Rufus is labelled as 'something out of the Stone Age'.
But McKay quickly appreciates that the Terrills are in reality no better than their Hannassey antagonists. Jim is expected to back up the Major, but he steadfastly refuses to align himself with the Terrills simply because of his relationship with the Major's daughter. He takes a principled stand in the middle. It seems no one can understand his position, least of all his fiancée, and tension soon begins to mount between McKay and Pat, the Major, and the Terrill ranch foreman Steve Leech.
Eventually McKay finds a friend in Julie Maragon, a local school teacher, and the only other person who has not taken sides in this dispute. Julie owns a small plot of land with a bountiful watering hole called the Big Muddy which both the Terrills and Hannasseys are eager to get their hands on. During the film, a bond develops between Jim McKay and Julie, as disaffection escalates with Pat. All the while, McKay struggles to keep to his principles, whilst keeping the peace between the two feuding families. But deep-rooted grievances are difficult to banish, and it seems inevitable that the two old patriarchs will have their day of violence.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Major Henry Terrill
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : William Wyler
- Donald Hamilton (novel)
- Jessamyn West (adaptation)
- Robert Wyler, James R Webb, Sy Bartlett (screenplay).
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1958
RUNNING TIME : 165 minutes
GENRE : Western
GUIDENCE : Suitable for family viewing
ACADEMY AWARDS :
- Burl Ives (Best Supporting Actor)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Jerome Moross (Best Music)
The three children amused by McKay on his first arrival in San Rafael, are Gregory Peck's own real-life children, Jonathan, Carey Paul, and Stephen.
There is an early appearance by Roddy McDowell in a tiny bit-part as one of the Hannassey look-outs.
Charlton Heston initially wanted to turn down the role of Steve Leech because it wasn't a big enough part. He was persuaded it would be good for his career to appear alongside Gregory Peck (one of the biggest stars of the age) under the direction of William Wyler (the legendary director). A year later Heston got his reward; Wyler cast him as the lead in 'Ben-Hur', and Heston won an Oscar.
Too many films in the 1950s suffered from too many stereotypical cliches, and a degree of overacting, and The Big Country is no exception. The antics of Buck Hannessey (Rufus's son) and his cronies in particular is just rowdy cowboy stuff, overplayed, and rather unconvincing. Maybe it's done deliberately so as to emphasise the ridiculousness of their attitudes and behaviour. But that's the only criticism. Everything else is perfect.
BEST CHARACTERS / PERFORMANCES
The central character - central in all senses of the word - is Jim McKay, played by Gregory Peck, in the kind of role that only he, or possibly James Stewart, could play. McKay is upright, moral, decent. He shys away from bigotry, hatred and violence. But we all know that when a stand has to be taken, McKay will step up to the mark.
Caroll Baker plays the spoilt, daddy-doting Pat Terill who's much more concerned with image than with substance, and Jean Simmons is very watchable indeed as attractive Julie Maragon. Charles Bickford is well cast as the vindictive Major.
But the Oscar winner in this film - and deservedly so - was Burl Ives. Ives plays Rufus, head of the Hannassey clan. Before we ever even get to meet Rufus, we've heard all about him from the Terrill point of view, so we know what to expect. True to form his first appearance is uncouth, belligerent and rude. But we learn later that Rufus is actually a man of some honour, and even some respect for decent values. Sadly, he is also a man, like the Major, too bound up in his anger and his bitterness to see things objectively. But it's Burl Ives himself, rather than the character he plays, who makes this role special. He commands all the attention every time he steps in front of the camera.
One further performance deserves mention. I believe Steve Leech, as played by Charlton Heston, is one of the most intriguing of characters. A special feature will be devoted to Leech, and how his character and personality develops through the movie.
SPECIAL FEATURE - STEVE LEECH; RANCH FOREMAN
Charlton Heston was a rising star at the time this movie was made. His performance as Steve Leech is not the key performance (Gregory Peck) or the best (Burl Ives), but without doubt it is the most interesting. At first glance Leech is just the Terrill counterpart to Buck Hannassey - the right hand man to the ranch boss, the young gun who does the dirty jobs in support of the ranch. But Steve Leech is a far more complex person than Buck.
He's full of resentment for Jim McKay, because he harbours secret feelings for Pat Terrill himself, and he sees McKay as an interloper who's stolen his girl. He's also bought into the whole violent Western lifestyle from a young age, and he despises McKay's genteel attitude. His biggest failing however, is the adoration in which he holds Major Terrill. It's not really his fault. He's been at the ranch since arriving as a 14 year boy with nothing but the clothes he was dressed in. The Major had taken him under his wing, and he has since always regarded the Major as a father figure, unquestioning in his loyalty to him.
Quite early on, we do see a little glimmer of hope for Leech, when he momentarily queries the necessity for destroying the Hannessy's water supply during a raid on the rival ranch. At this stage, however, it's only the most token of resistances.
It takes a fist fight for Jim McKay to finally earn Leech's respect. This is such an important event in the film, it will be described under 'favourite scenes'. Soon after the fight, Leech is given orders to run some of the Hannasseys' cattle away from the Big Muddy waterhole. Having done so, he confronts his deadly enemy Buck Hannessey with the cruel advice:
'You just run on back home and tell your daddy he's watered his last steer in the Big Muddy.'
Buck trumps this with a jibe which really hits home:
'And you run on back home and shine up the Major's boots!'
Leech's discomfort at this taunt shows that he is now beginning to feel very uneasy about his blind, unquestioning, poodle-like following of the Major.
IF YOU LIKE THIS MOVIE ...
SPECIAL FEATURE - STEVE LEECH STANDS UP TO THE MAJOR
Towards the end of the movie, Leech finds himself on bended knee before the Major. In the context of the movie, this is purely coincidental and the moment only lasts a few seconds, but I'm sure the sequence must have been intentional on the director's part - implying as it does an almost deciple-like reverence towards the Major.
But Steve Leech is changing, and there now follows an exchange which demonstrates just how much he is changing. Terrill is determined to wage final war on the Hannasseys, but his foreman recognises that this is sheer folly, not least because Jim McKay at that very moment is trying to broker a peace. Probably for the first time in his life Steve Leech stands up to his boss. And Major Terrill is taken aback by his reluctance to fight;
'If it was anybody but you, I'd think you were scared.'
Leech replies, 'I'd walk into Hell after you Major, you know that. Not much you could ask I wouldn't try to do. I just don't hold with you on this. I just can't do it Major; I can't!'
'By damn, you are yellow!' says Major Terrill.
Leech's response to this is extremely telling. We've already established during the film in comments by both Leech and Pat, that to be called a coward is the ultimate insult in this society. Anybody calling Leech a coward would ordinarily receive a swift and violent response. But Leech has learned from McKay. He has begun to turn the other cheek.
'You call me whatever you want, but I'm not beatin' up any more men for you. I'm not running off any more cattle or shootin' any more Hannasseys for you. You ride on in if you want to. I'm finished.'
Such words would have been unthinkable only a few days before, when he would have obeyed Major Terrill's orders without question. Now he is thinking for himself and looking for peace.The response of the other ranch hands is equally telling. When Major Terrill orders them to mount up, they stay put. The ranch hands are demonstrating that their loyalty has shifted away from Terrill, and towards their foreman. They follow him now - acknowledging the senselessness of this feud.
So Leech contemplates the ultimate act of defiance against his adopted father, and Major Terrill rides off alone to face Rufus Hannassey in battle. But when it comes to the crunch, a lifetime of loyalty wins through. Steve Leech has to try one more time to look after the Major, even though he now knows he is in the wrong.
(Plot Spoiler). Early on in the film, the Major describes Steve Leech as 'a fine foreman'. Later, Julie Maragon tells McKay that above all else he's going to need 'a good foreman' if he is to run a ranch of his own, as he plans to do. I'd like to think that there's an intentional link here. I'd like to think that Leech, who survives the film, is rehabilitated when freed from the venomously bad influences of the Major, and will eventually come to work as McKay's right hand man.
Just about every line that Burl Ives delivers as Rufus Hannassey is memorable, beautifully crafted and perfectly delivered.
But the most important quotes in this film serve to emphasise the difference between the civilised values of Jim McKay, and those of the society he has entered.
In one scene Pat Terrill confronts her fiancée over his apparent inability to act like a man is supposed to act:
'Don't you care what people think?'
McKay: 'No, I'm not responsible for what people think. Only for what I am.'
'Don't you care what I think? Do you like to have people think of you as a .... (pause)'
McKay finishes the sentence for her: 'A coward. Why don't you say it? Are you afraid of the word? I'm not. And I'm not gonna spend the rest of my life demonstrating how brave I am.'
Supposed cowardice is a strong theme throughout. In another scene, Pat Terrill complains to Julie Maragon:
'If he loved me, why would he let me think he's a coward?'
The exasperated Julie replies;
'If you love him, why would you think it?'
But my favourite line of all, which sums up the whole anti-aggression theme of the movie, comes at the end of the great fist fight between Jim McKay and Leech, already referred to elsewhere. Both men are bloodied, bruised and tired. McKay turns to Leech and delivers the priceless line;
'Now tell me Leech - what did we prove?'
The unspoken answer is 'absolutely nothing', and I think It is the moment when Leech begins to question his own values.
The first appearance of Rufus is one of the great entrance scenes in the history of the movies. There is a glitzy Western ball in progress, with all the guests dressed in their finery, walzing round the room. In through the french doors walks Burl Ives as Hannassey patriarch Rufus. First we just see the back of his head. The room descends into silence. Then we see his face. Rufus is a bear of a man, grizzled, shabby and simmering with rage, but he makes the points he wants to make with defiance and boldness. There is some dignity in his words. Rufus's gatecrashing of the party is beautifully scripted and brilliantly played.
There is humour in this film, mostly at McKay's expense. Early on, Steve Leech tries to humiliate him by getting him to ride a bad tempered old stallion called Old Thunder in front of all the ranch hands. McKay senses the game being played and refuses, However, McKay does want to test himself, so when there are no spectators, he returns to the corral with just one of the hands, Ramon, and saddles up Old Thunder. The result is a very enjoyable little sequence involving a battle of wills, and several spills as McKay attempts to master the horse.
Leech has been itching for a fight with McKay throughout the movie. But he wants a fight in front of everyone, so he can show off his toughness to Pat Terrill. McKay refuses to play ball until his relationship with Pat is all but over. Then the fight will take place on his terms, alone, unwitnessed, at dawn. The sequence is a masterpiece of cinematography - shot mainly with the protagonists as two very small figures dwarfed by the panoramic backdrop of the 'big country'. It's also perhaps the most important sequence in the movie because it's the one which highlights best the pointlessness of resolving issues with violence. At the end of it McKay turns to Leech and delivers the key quote of the film (see opposite).
THE 'BIG COUNTRY' QUOTE
Even the title of this film is a dig at the Wild Western pomposity. Everybody keeps telling McKay that this land is a 'big country' as though being big is something to boast about - a line which McKay nicely deflates at the welcoming ball, held in his honour.
'Did you ever see anything so big?' asks one ranch owner proudly.
'Well yes,' says McKay, a former sea captain, clearly unimpressed.
'You have? What?' asks the puzzled rancher.
'A couple of oceans.'
The bamboozlement of the rancher who simply cannot comprehend McKay's lack of awe is priceless.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?
Gregory Peck's McKay is the kind of hero we should all aspire to be, given the chance. Not a brash, bold hero like a Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone, nor even a quietly determined hero. Rather he is the unassuming, mild-mannered man who refuses to show off his courage. (But we all know that when push comes to shove, he'll prove himself to be twice the man that the testosterone induced posturers are).
This is a film about conflict. Conflict between the Hannesseys and the Terrills, between Rufus and the Major, between their right hand men, Buck Hannassey and Steve Leech, and between Pat Terrill and Julie Maragon who unintentionally becomes her rival in love. And in the middle of this is Jim McKay trying to keep the peace, and trying to keep to his principles of non-violence. The film is also about the conflict between the civilised values of McKay and the values of the lawless West. These are great movie themes.
This is an anti-Western. The biting theme of this movie is that Wild West values are stupid values, in which people settle disputes with guns, when a little dialogue and reason would resolve them just as well; but in this world, dialogue and reason are almost seen as bywords for cowardice.
One last facet must be mentioned - the music. Jerome Moross's score is justifiably regarded as one of the all time great movie scores. The addition of this stirring music, emotionally seems to expand the countryside into an endlessly big vista, and provides a perfect backdrop to the tempestuous lives of the characters who live here.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The Big Country is a special Western, with a great cast, and a great script and dialogue. I wouldn't necessarily suggest it is the cleverest film ever made, or the best acted (Burl Ives apart), but I would suggest that the combination of good old-fashioned entertainment and action coupled with a powerful moral theme, makes this a special movie. Everyone's opinion is personal, but my opinion is that this movie is the best ever made.
PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THIS FILM
SOME OF MY OTHER WESTERN FILM REVIEWS.....
- The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The Quick and the Dead is a Western in which 16 of the fastest guns around shoot it out in organised duels until one is left. There's no prize for second place