Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Big Country" (1958)


Everything in this movie is big.  The scenery, the characters' egos and ideas and desires -- even the names of the stars.  And the filmmakers don't let you forget it, either.  They crammed the movie with sweeping vistas, outsized sets, and characters caught up in larger-than-life struggles.  If you like Hollywood Epics with a capital E, this is the movie for you!


Wealthy sea captain Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) leaves his sailing ships and heads for Texas to meet the family of the girl he fell in love with back East, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker).  Her father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), welcomes Jim McKay with an enormous party, during which everyone from miles around shakes Jim's hand and reminds him that Texas is a Big Country.  He dares to tell one of them that yes, he has seen something just as big before: the ocean!  They don't believe him.  Nothing could be bigger than Texas.


Patricia is headstrong, spoiled, and bossy.  Somehow, remarkably, she's acquired the friendship of a sensible, clear-sighted, and intelligent woman named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons).  Maybe it's because they're just about the only unattached young women in the area, or maybe Patricia likes that Julie gives her good advice and doesn't defy her bossing.  Much.


Jim McKay soon learns that Major Terrill has an arch-enemy, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives).  The Hannasseys and the Terrills have been feuding for a long time now.  Why?  Mostly because they're the two biggest landowners in the area, and because the heads of both families are ornery and mean.


The only reason the area has had any semblance of peace is that there's only one good water source, the Big Muddy.  And neither Terrill nor Hannassey controls the Big Muddy.


Julie Maragon does.  For decades, she (like her father before her) has allowed both the Hannasseys and the Terrills to water their stock in the river on the condition that they keep the peace.  The first to break that uneasy truce will lose all rights to use the vital water.  This puts a lot of pressure on Julie from both sides, but she bears up under it with grace and conviction.  She's going to keep the peace in this land if it kills her.


Now, Major Terrill and Patricia decide that, because Julie is Patricia's best friend, Julie can be convinced to give Patricia her land and all the water rights as a wedding present when Patricia marries Jim McKay.


However, Rufus Hannassey's oldest boy, Buck (Chuck Connors) has decided that Julie fancies him.  Buck is a crude, cowardly bully, so used to getting his own way that he thinks he can get Julie to marry him just by telling her she wants to.


As you might imagine, Julie Maragon is very tired of being pulled and pushed back and forth by these people.  She'd like nothing better than to find someone to sell her land to, someone that she could trust to continue the agreement that the Hannasseeys and Terrills have to play nice in order to use the water.

And then she finds someone who's willing and able to take on that task:  Jim McKay.


The funny thing is, everyone else in the movie is utterly certain that Jim is an inept tenderfoot who's scared to do anything manly.  They've marked him as a timid greenhorn who couldn't stand up to a medium-strong wind.  That's especially true of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Major Terrill's sort-of-adopted-son who runs his ranch for him.  He tries to trick Jim into riding a bronc, but Jim won't do it, so he decides Jim's a coward.  He and everyone else in the film think if a man won't show off what he can do, then he can't do it.


Everyone except Julie Maragon.  She sees Jim McKay for what he is -- so comfortable in his own skin, so confident in his own abilities that he has no need to parade them before others.  So Julie sells Jim her ranch, and they get the transaction all properly deeded and recorded.  Just in time, too, because Buck has convinced Rufus that Julie's willing to marry him.


So the Hannasseys kidnap Julie and tell her she can't go free until she's either signed over her land or married Buck.  By this time, Buck doesn't much care about the water anymore, he just wants Julie, any way he can get her.  And he almost does get her, though happily he's too dumb to be quiet about it, and his attempt on Julie's virtue comes to nothing.

Julie's kidnapping is all the excuse Major Terrill needs to go riding out to the Hannassey homestead, looking for blood.


Meanwhile, Jim has seen Patricia for what she really is: selfish.  He's broken with her for good.  Now he offers to ride into the Hannasseey camp alone to see if he can rescue Julie without bloodshed.


Also, he wants to find out if she might regard him as highly as he does her, though he doesn't mention that as one of his reasons.


The two sides engage in a mighty battle, and you'll be happy to know that murderous, would-be-rapist Buck Hannassey gets what he deserves.


Now, why do I dig this movie so much?  Partly it's the cast, as I really like Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.  They've all been among my favorites since I was a teen.


But a lot of it is because this is a fish-out-of-water story where the ocean fish, Jim McKay, doesn't just survive perfectly well in the waterless world of Texas, he thrives.  And not by conforming to the local customs.  He goes about things his own way, he solves problems without being asked, and he generally behaves beautifully to everyone involved.  He's a hero in every way, and I love that he ends up with a woman he can respect.  A woman who appreciates him for who he is, not for how he makes her look.  And a woman who's not afraid to work hard and wait a long time to make her dreams come true.


EDIT: I forgot to mention the music!  Jerome Moross's score for The Big Country is one of my absolute favorite soundtracks of all time.  It's magnificent.  I wrote vast chunks of my book Cloaked and its short sequel "Blizzard at Three Bears Lake" while listening to it.  You can hear it here on YouTube in its entirety, or just the (brilliant) main title theme here, also on YouTube.

Is this movie family-friendly?  Well, there's quite a lot of violence, but '50s-Hollywood violence, so lots of punching and kicking and shooting, but nothing more gory than a little red paint for blood.  Drinking and smoking occurs.  There's a little very mild bad language.  There are two instances of a man forcing a kiss on a woman, plus quite a few scenes of people kissing and enjoying it.  I mentioned that there's a rape attempt, though kids will probably see it as just a sneaky attack of violence, as all rapey intentions are implied.  Fine for kids 10+, especially if they watch a lot of old westerns and understand that the violence is just pretend.


This has been my contribuition to the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Wonderful World of Cinema.  Visit either of those blogs for the complete list of the blogathon entries!

29 comments:

  1. This looks like a movie I'd really enjoy.

    Annnd the library has it! I'll let you know what I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sweet! Definitely let me know. I'll warn you -- it has a couple parts that go on way too long. There are parts of it that annoy me. So... I'm okay if they annoy you too ;-)

      Delete
    2. Eva, I forgot to mention the music! Argh, this is what I get for finishing this while I'm sick. I went back and added in a paragraph about it, complete with links, if you want to give it a listen. I adore it.

      Delete
    3. Haha! I'll be prepared. :D

      I'll listen to the main theme as soon as I get the chance. You know I'm always looking out for great music.

      Delete
    4. Eva, I know some people who like the soundtrack better than the movie. It's very lovely indeed.

      Delete
  2. I have lost count of the number of times I have enjoyed The Big Country. The family laughs when it is on and I say "I'll only listen to the theme." They know better.

    An earlier screenplay by James Webb, 1951s Raton Pass, has a similar feel to The Big Country and a few scenes in common.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Caftan Woman, this is one of my dad's absolute favorite westerns, so I totally have no idea how many times I've seen it either. We watched it together last time I visited my folks so my dad could show off his new big-screen TV.

      I'd not heard of Raton Pass, but I shall have to check that out!

      Delete
  3. This is one of my favorite Westerns. I love your review!! :D (And YES THE MUSIC. So good.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Natalie, yay! So happy you love this movie too :-) Glad you enjoyed my post! (And I've got the soundtrack on right now, cuz it just doesn't get old.)

      Delete
  4. Great article! I love the music as well! This is one of the very first films starring Jean Simmons that I ever saw and I've always loved it. But really, it's hard to go wrong with anything directed by William Wyler! Thanks so much for your participation to our blogathon. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Virginie! I think this was my second Jean Simmons movie -- I already loved her from Guys and Dolls, and this cemented her as a favorite.

      Thanks for hosting!

      Delete
  5. I LOVE THIS MOVIE. <3 It's probably my third-favorite Western.

    We just re-watched it recently, actually. This time around, I was struck by how there's really no difference, goodness-wise, between Hannassey and Terrill. They're both pretty awful. Both would be willing to stand up for a damsel in distress (ish, I mean . . . Hannassey sort of does, and then he sort of doesn't, at the same time), but both are vindictive and childish and power-hungry. And I don't like either one very much at all. *sticks out tongue at them* (And I don't get the feeling that either were good fathers.)

    I'm also conflicted about Steve. I want to like him (I mean, Charleton Heston), but . . . he also technically assaulted Pat. So . . . there's that.

    BUT JIM AND JULIE ARE FABULOUS. I love them. :D Those actors are both so good, and their characters are wonderful.

    One thing I also like about this film is how it's not afraid of silences--not even fairly long-lasting silences. I think it's a neat cinematic tool for this particular story.

    Great review! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Olivia, how cool it's that high on your list!

      I agree, both Hannassey and Terrill are terrible people. In fact, I almost think Hannassey is a little bit better person than Terrill is... but not by much. He has fewer delusions about his goodness, maybe?

      Yes, Steve is a cypher. The first time I wached this movie, I only half-liked it because I got so angry at Steve for not being a really good guy. But, as you say, Jim and Julie are fabulous, so in the end, I grew to love it.

      Good point on the silences!

      Thanks!

      Delete
  6. I think I should put this on my to-watch list: I need to watch/read more Westerns as preparation for my Western fantasy once I finish the Holocaust novel. And this looks like a good one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jessica, I'd be intrigued by what you think of this. It's a unique movie.

      Delete
  7. I love this film as well - too bad most people forget mentioning it when they're talking about epics. The story is engaging and the characters are very interesting - and, yes, the music is excellent.
    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Le, good point -- this doesn't get mentioned as often as other epic, sprawling westerns, much less epics in general. Huh.

      Delete
  8. I don't think it's ever stated where this takes place, is it? I've seen it several times (a favorite for sure) and don't remember Texas being mentioned.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patrick Wahl, you know, maybe they don't ever explicitely say its Texas. Huh.

      Delete
  9. Patricia got on my nerves a lot which is probably why when I watched it the first time I didn't love it. However, looking back I remember it fondly, especially Peck's performance. I don't remember the soundtrack so I'll have to give it another listen :) Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    Btw, I finally watched The Proud Rebel. There were tears involved. And David was so good! And Jagger was so mean! I figure Gen. Waverly was forgotten despite Wallace and Davis, lost his arm in a freak horseshoe accident, closed up the inn and moved out West with his lousy secret family ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Phyl, I know, right? Patricia is exasperating and fairly awful. But Peck and Simmons are a delight, and I get a huge kick out of Burl Ives and Charlton Heston in it.

      Awwwwwwww, I'm so glad you liked The Proud Rebel!!! Yes, it's like this is what would happen to General Waverley if Phil and Bob DIDN'T decide to show him he's not forgotten. Your idea of a freak horseshoe accident is cracking me up :-)

      If that was my family, I'd keep it a secret too.

      Delete
    2. Here is the theme -

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-7ZX_JA7-A

      Delete
    3. Thanks for sharing that, Patrick! I think that's a bit better quality than the version I linked to in my post.

      Delete
  10. I watched this some years ago, and I had mixed feelings. I felt that (as I notice you mentioned in the comments) there were a number of scenes that dragged on a lot longer than they needed to. And I did get a little impatient with Peck's character sometimes...it seemed like there were places where he could have straightened things out with a few words, instead of staying so silent and letting other people draw their own conclusions about him. But I loved Julie's character; and there were a few great standout scenes (like the part where Terrill enters Blanco Canyon—you'll know what I'm talking about—it gave me goosebumps!). I'd like to watch it again sometime and see if it strikes me the same way or if my reactions would be different.

    You won't get any argument from me about the music, though. It's awesome.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Elisabeth, yes, it definitely has a languid pace. But I like Peck's character because... I identify with him a lot, maybe? I hate having to explain myself to people, especially strangers -- if you want to know something, ask me, but I shouldn't have to run around explaining my behavior to you just so you won't look at me funny. When plunked into the middle of an a crowd of strangers, I'm not going to go around volunteering info. And I think that he DOES try to explain himself, his thoughts, and his behavior quite often -- but people refuse to listen to him or take him seriously, especially when he has a compass and has navigated the featureless ocean with it how many times, and they're just treating him like a child who thinks he can take care of himself. I want to shake basically everyone because of that. In fact, a big reason I like Julie so well is that she DOES take him seriously, she does let him explain how he is able to navigate an unfamiliar place. Everyone else cuts him off and won't listen, so why would he bother explaining his actions to them when they're clearly not wanting to listen anyway?

      Erm, I'll get down from my defend-the-fictional-character soapbox now ;-)

      Delete
  11. I once made the effort to find the Donald Hamilton book and read it; the difference that surprised me the most was how Charlton Heston improved the Steve Leech character from the book by (IMO) playing Leech as a much less grating character. The Steve Leech in the book definitely seemed to me someone who would have been labeled a "tin-horn," but Charlton Heston dialed that aspect back in favor of a much more nuanced, quietly angry, reading of Leech. I don't see an absolute equality between the characters of Rufus Hannassey and Henry Terrill; I agree that they were both very bad, with Rufus Hannassey being (again IMO) less bad. Rufus Hannassey is (IMO) more grounded and humble; Henry Terrill has this "it's my way or the highway" attitude that (I feel) is meant to be very off-putting to the audience.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, how interesting! I grew up watching the movie Giant and then read Edna Ferber's novel as an adult and was shocked by how very different Jett Rink is in the book -- so much less appealing.

      I do like Rufus Hannasey better than Henry Terrill. But I don't like either of them much ;-)

      Delete
  12. I love this movie! The Cast, the characters, the sweeping cinematography, and the music, all make it a great western. All the people who I know that have watched it love it. I highly recommend it - even if you don't typically like westerns!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laura G, it really is a glorious spectacle. And definitely one that most people dig!

      Delete

Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)