They don’t come any bigger
I’ve always been a fan of Gregory Peck in Westerns. He brought a certain presence to the characters he played, an authority and dignity – even when he was a common gunman, as in The Gunfighter, or a Westerner on a revenge mission, as in The Bravados (both absolutely superb movies). He is particularly good as the Eastern dude who shows a great deal of Western grit in The Big Country.
It’s a classic range-war Western, with big rancher Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) feuding with the much rougher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) over water rights, and Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), rancher turned school ma’am, caught in the middle. Into this electric situation comes a wealthy retired sea captain, Jim McKay, to marry Terrill’s beautiful but spoiled daughter Pat (Carroll Baker).
The best performance, certainly, even better than Peck’s, was by Ives. He won an Oscar for it, and deservedly so. Burl Ives was an outstandingly good actor in the Westerns he did, even when he had a relatively small part, as in Station West, but especially in two splendid pictures, The Big Country and the André De Toth-directed Day of the Outlaw the following year.
In The Big Country he is the apparently salty and redneck small rancher Hannassey with no-good white trash sons (notably Chuck Connors, in one of his best-ever roles: a bully and a coward, he will be, in a way, at the heart of the film when his father kills him) but when Hannessey faces off against rich Major Terrill at the grand ball at Terrill’s house, it is Hannassey who shows the dignity and decency, and Terrill who comes across as the skunk. Hannassey has his own code of honor, and abides by it. In a way, he is more Western: he talks less but does more, and when it comes down to it, he is in the right and ready to defend it. McKay realizes this and has conflicted loyalties.
As Terrill, Bickford is also superb. He was another of those actors who was notably good in Westerns – you really notice him. Long before The Virginian on TV, from the 1929 talkie Hell’s Heroes, a version of 3 Godfathers also directed by William Wyler, onwards, he was superbly villainous as Lattimer in The Plainsman, brilliant in Duel in the Sun, also with Peck, (where he was the poorer cattleman), noble as Pat Garrett in Four Faces West, tragic as the father who is persuaded that Alan Ladd is his long lost son in Branded, and, especially, vigorous as Zeb Rawlins in The Unforgiven. A really great Western actor. Apparently he was a cranky type, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like, and this did not endear him to director Wyler.
Simmons was apparently so traumatized by the experience of making the film that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning. It made the acting damned near impossible.”
Many worked on those rewrites: James R Webb, Sy Bartlett and Robert Wilder (the director’s brother) wrote the screenplay from a Jessamyn West adaptation of the then just-published source novel by Donald Hamilton (the Matt Helm guy). Often, too many writers spoil the broth but in this case they get away with it; the story is dramatic but believable, and tension builds very well.
Director William Wyler knew a thing or two. He should: he started directing Westerns back in the silent days, did the 1927 version of Straight Shootin’, and, when talkies came along, The Storm in 1930, and the great Judge Roy Bean story The Westerner in 1940. He was famously demanding, insisting on take after take. His deft hand is evident in The Big Country, his last Western.
It was big in every sense. Everything about it is on the grand scale. As well as the big stars, top-notch classy director, $2.8m budget and 166-minute runtime, it has big sweeping, Red Rock Canyon and Mojave Desert locations photographed in wide-screen color by Franz Planer. It’s big alright. The New York Times said, “Out there in the wide open country, in color and on the Technirama screen, those verbal encounters and violent battles are like something on the windy plains of Troy.” I like the way that in the dialogue the bigness is constantly referred to in a self-congratulatory way, until Peck’s character is heartily sick of it. As he has navigated the Pacific Ocean, to him it’s just a little patch of land.
1958 was a time when theatrical movies were reeling from the shock of TV. Westerns certainly were migrating from the big to the (then) very small screen. The big studios replied with budget, color (color TV was relatively new), widescreen and scope. In ’56 Wyler had hit the jackpot with the semi-Western Friendly Persuasion, Oscared for best film, and the following year there would be Ben Hur, with, of course, Charlton Heston.
Ah, yes, Heston. This is Episode 7 of our current ongoing Chuck-o-rama. We have looked at Heston’s best Western, Will Penny (1968), in which he was superb, and also at his first five oaters, which were all undistinguished at best, if not indeed downright bad, namely (click the links for our not-very-flattering reviews) The Savage (1952), Pony Express and Arrowhead (both 1953), The Far Horizons (1955) and Three Violent People (1956).
Finally, though, Chuck landed a role in a good Western, as ranch foreman Steve Leech, who has designs on Pat but is rebuffed by her. Whether the fact that he was not the headliner this time but fourth billed is coincidental, I know not, but it was a good part and he handled it well. It is said that he initially turned it down because he didn’t think the part was big enough but his agent convinced him that it would be worth it just for the opportunity to work with Wyler and Peck. That agent was right, if so. Finally Heston got a fine director and some good writing – this was not the case in his first few sagebrush sagas. He had been a rather unsympathetic good guy in his Westerns to date; now he was a plain bad guy.
He rides a fine black and white paint horse, and, essential Western-movie knowledge coming up, that same mount was used in the later Peck movie The Stalking Moon.
Alfonso Bedoya is amusing as ranch hand Ramon. He was often given stereotype roles as comic-relief, English-mangling Mexican and this comes across as demeaning to us now, but in The Big Country he is better than that, and his character is really rather noble – if very much subordinate. He died a month after principal photography was completed.
There was also a handful of Peck sons, billed a tad unimaginatively as Boy.
Slim Pickens’s daughter said that her dad doubled Gregory Peck in the scene where Peck’s character was bucked off the horse. Pickens owned the horse and didn’t want anyone else riding it.
Peck, William and Robert Wyler were producers. Apparently Wyler and Peck did not get on. Wyler told the press, “I wouldn’t direct Peck again for a million dollars and you can quote me on that.” You get the feeling that Peck was pursuing his agenda of non-violence in the resolving of conflict. If so, good for him. Reader Boppa pointed out that “Many see a Cold War allegory in this story, with Burl Ives as Khrushchev and Charles Bickford as (I guess?) Ike. I wonder if that originated in the source novel by Hamilton, who, as you point out, wrote spy novels.” Peck said that in an interview. Eisenhower gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made – my number one favorite film.” So maybe that’s right.
However, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times made the point, after describing all the fighting and killing, that “Only then, after so much blood-letting and crackling of rifles and skulls, does it seem to sink in on the remaining feudists that there is no percentage in war on the range. But plainly that wasn’t the notion producer-director Wyler had in making this film. He saw plenty of percentage in it, if he could crowd enough of it onto the screen.”
The Jerome Moross score is also splendid, appropriately big and swirling. The IMDb trivia page (endless source of fascination) tells us that “Director William Wyler absolutely hated Jerome Moross’s score for The Big Country, and insisted on hiring another composer to redo the job. But preview audiences were so enthusiastic about the music, especially the opening theme, that star and co-producer Gregory Peck persuaded Wyler to back down. Moross went on to earn an Oscar nomination and his score for The Big Country is now considered one of the classic western soundtracks.” JAW reader Jerry Entract said he loved the music score even before he saw the film. It is indeed almost Magnificent Seven-memorable. You can listen to a snatch of it to remind you here.
The Big Country is a classic example of how a tried-and-tested plot (let’s call it that rather than threadbare or clichéd) can be done really well. No one would call The Big Country profound or even greatly original but it certainly is highly entertaining and done with gusto.
Oddly, as one expects the long film to accelerate towards the end, it slows down, yet somehow this does not make it drag. The scene where Terrill, deserted by his men and even by his faithful foreman, rides off alone to face Hannassey, but is then rejoined by his men (including Heston) is really powerful. Heston looks back, to check the men are following; but Bickford does not. He knows they will come. It’s one of the great images of the picture.
By 1958 the glory-decade of the Western, the 1950s, was beginning to fade. Of the 77 Westerns released in that year (compared with 135 in 1950) I would put the Anthony Mann/Gary Cooper Man of the West and Peck’s The Bravados as among the best but it was not an epic year. (More utterly essential trivia: Burl Ives’s hideout/ranch is exactly the same set that was used for the ghost town in Man of the West.) In fact The Big Country did better at the box-office than The Bravados: it grossed $10m, selling 14,705,882 tickets, to $4.4m/ 6,470,588 tickets for The Bravados. Actually, The Big Country ended fourth in the rankings that year, rare for a Western, beaten only by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Auntie Mame and South Pacific. Impressive, huh?
Variety liked it a lot, praising “one of the best photography jobs of the year”. It added, “As the peace-loving easterner, Peck gives one of his better performances. Ives is topnotch as the rough but fair-minded Hannassey; Bickford is fine as the ruthless, unforgiving rancher. Chuck Connors, a former professional baseball player, is especially convincing as Ives’ uncouth son who attempts to rape Simmons. Jerome Moross’ musical score is also on the plus side.”
Harrison’s Reports declared it “a first-rate super-Western, beautifully photographed in the Technirama anamorphic process and Technicolor. It is a long picture, perhaps too long for what the story has to offer, but there is never a dull moment from start to finish and it holds one’s interest tightly throughout.”
The Washington Post called it “super stuff. Franz Planer’s photography of Texas is downright awe-inspiring, the characters are solid, the story line firm, the playing first-rate, the music more than dashing in this nearly three-hour tale which should delight everybody.”
Not all the critics loved it. The New York Times said, “But for all this film’s mighty pretensions, it does not get far beneath the skin of its conventional Western situation and its stock Western characters. It skims across standard complications and ends on a platitude. Peace is a pious precept but fightin’ is more excitin’. That’s what it proves.”
The New Yorker thought “Of those involved in this massive enterprise, Mr. Bickford and Mr. Ives are the most commendable as they whoop and snort about the sagebrush. But even they are hardly credible types, and as for the rest of the cast, they can be set down as a rather wooden lot.”
The Los Angeles Times came down in the middle, saying the film was “too self consciously ‘epical’ to be called great, but at its best, which is frequently, it’s better than good.”
The Big Country was a confident, as yet unquestioning Western, and it truly belongs in the great decade. Peck, Wyler, Bickford, Ives, and yes, finally, Heston, it was a great line-up and this picture is worthy of our attention, e-pards, trust me.
On the set: