They don’t come any bigger
William Wyler started in Westerns, as Universal’s youngest director in the mid-1920s making 2-reel programmers. His first sound picture was also an oater, an excellent filming of the well-known story The Three Godfathers, titled Hell’s Heroes, in 1929. Since then, though, he’d worked on ‘semi-Westerns’, notably Friendly Persuasion in 1956, but had only really done The Westerner (1940) as a ‘proper’ oater. And even that slightly subverted the genre, being as much a subtle black comedy as an out-and-out saddle and sagebrush saga. Good as The Westerner was, Wyler wasn’t one of the great Western directors in the league of John Ford, say. But his last Western, The Big Country, was indeed a ‘proper Western’ – and boy, was it big.
Wyler had long sought artistic independence and freedom to make the film he wanted how he wanted and now in an effort to secure this he joined forces with his close friend Gregory Peck. Peck later said, “Willy and I had grown very close. We spent holidays together at Sun Valley with our families. We were always dining out together. It would be the Wylers at the Pecks or the Pecks at the Wylers.” Writer James Webb brought Peck a Saturday Evening Post story by Donald Hamilton (the Matt Helm guy), Ambush at Blanco Canyon, and Peck took it to Wyler. They both thought it ideal. “There were half a dozen very good parts, so we could do some great casting. I also thought the theme would appeal to [Willy]. It was a kind of anti-macho Western.”
Peck had a deal with United Artists, who would finance and distribute the picture, though he and Wyler had, they were assured, complete autonomy. Wyler would be in charge of all things artistic while Peck would manage the ranching and livestock elements – and star, of course. Peck had a lot of grazing land and took part in roundups, roping and branding. He knew the score.
“We were going after a commercial hit, not Academy Awards,” Peck said, accurately. UA must have been pleased to hear that. They put up $2.8m, so they had faith in the project.
All sorts of writers had input, including Jessamyn West, the author of The Friendly Persuasion, Wyler’s brother Robert and Leon Uris. Even then they didn’t have an ending they liked when they began shooting. 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.
Wyler said the film was about “courage and cowardice. It was about a man’s refusal to act according to the accepted standards of behavior. Customs of the Old West were sort of debunked.” Well, yes, up to a point.
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.
Casting went well.
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 an outlaw, as in Yellow Sky, a common gunman, as in The Gunfighter, or a Westerner on a revenge mission, as in The Bravados (all absolutely superb movies). He is particularly good as the Eastern dude James McKay who shows a great deal of Western grit in The Big Country.
It’s a classic range-war Western, and the part of the required ruthless big rancher, Major Terrill, went to Charles Bickford. Wyler had his doubts because of the difficulties they had had all those years before on Hell’s Heroes. “I had a falling out with that guy years ago,” he told Peck. “He was as stubborn as a mule.” Peck replied, “Well, that’s the character. He’s self-important, arrogant, opinionated and stubborn.” Wyler probably thought Bickford well cast.
Terrill feuds with the much less refined Rufus Hannassey over water rights, and Burl Ives was excellent casting for this role. He was such a good actor – as he would underline the following year in the magnificent Day of the Outlaw. His performance as Hannassey was even better than Peck’s and he won an Oscar for it, deservedly.
In The Big Country he is the apparently salty and redneck small rancher 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 was also very good, despite all the tantrums he threw. Long before The Virginian on TV, 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. He may have been ‘difficult’, a cranky type, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like, but he could be a great Western actor.
Carroll Baker was third-billed as Patricia, Terrill’s beautiful but spoiled daughter, the fiancée of Peck’s Mackay, a wealthy retired sea captain, come out to the ‘Wild West’ to marry her. Baker wasn’t happy on set, “nervous and frustrated, sometimes offended”, as Jan Herman put it in his biography of Wyler. At one point Heston recalled Wyler told him to grab her by the wrists and not let her go whatever happened, while he told Baker to wrench herself free no matter what. The result may have been a dramatic scene but it also resulted in welts on her wrists and her weeping in frustration and anger.
Jean Simmons played Julie Maragon, rancher turned schoolma’am, caught in the middle of the Terrill/Hannassey feud. Both sides want her land, the Big Muddy – and its water. Simmons was apparently so traumatized by the experience of making the film under Wyler 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.” She also told her manager, Jeffrey Barr, that Wyler was “very, very cruel and hurt her deeply.” Nevertheless, Heston remembered how good she was. He especially recalled a scene which he thought the most unusual moment in the picture, when “she has a silent close-up that must run for forty seconds”
So the atmosphere on the set wasn’t the best. Wyler was a hard task master. The remote locations and constant script revisions didn’t help.
Wyler wanted Charlton Heston to play Leech, the ranch foreman rival of McKay, who despises the Easterner as much as he dislikes him. He thinks of McKay as effete and willing to do anything to avoid violence. At first Heston passed on the role. He had already made it big as Moses in The Ten Commandments as well as leading in several Westerns and he said, “There are three men’s parts better than mine, and the two women’s roles are at least as good. I’m pretty far down the line here.” He had a point. But in the end Heston’s agent, Henry Citron, and Wyler himself talked him into it. Myself, I’ve never been a great fan of Heston Westerns (see our appreciation here), with the exception of the late one Will Penny, in which he was excellent, but I must say he’s pretty good in The Big Country as the foreman who has designs on Patricia but is rebuffed by her. 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.
Of the smaller parts, 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.
The Big Country was big in every sense. Everything about it is on the grand scale. As well as the big stars, top-notch director, big 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 (if you’ll forgive the pun) from the shock of TV. Westerns certainly were migrating from the big to the (then) very small screen. The major studios replied with budget, color (color TV was relatively new), widescreen and scope. Of course right after The Big Country Wyler and Heston would be off to Rome to do a movie that wasn’t just big, it was gi-normous. Ben-Hur would out-DeMille DeMille.
By ’58 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.)
The Jerome Moross score to the Big Country 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.
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.” Crowther was normally a great admirer of Wyler’s work but he thought this picture pretentious. “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.”
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.
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.” TIME magazine went over the top, calling it “starkly beautiful” (which it is) but saying it deserved comparison with Shane (which it doesn’t).
Not all the critics loved it. 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 difficult atmosphere on the shoot finally even soured the Peck/Wyler friendship. Peck stormed off towards the end of the shoot and wouldn’t come back despite pleas. The immediate casus belli was a scene which Peck wasn’t satisfied with, when he is hazed by the Hannassey boys in the buckboard, but for some reason Wyler would not reshoot. There were other disagreements. Peck was in charge of the cattle and so on and ordered a large herd to be assembled but Wyler canceled the order without telling him, on money grounds, he said, though he was not cost-conscious as a rule. This time, though, he was a producer and they’d already spent $4.1m on the $2.8m budget. Oops. At any rate they didn’t speak to each other for years after this. Wyler told the press, “I wouldn’t direct Peck again for a million dollars and you can quote me on that.”
They finally patched it up at the Academy Awards in April 1960, when Wyler was picking up his Oscar for Ben-Hur. Peck proffered his hand and said, “Congratulations, Willy. You deserved it.” Wyler had the good grace to shake the hand and at least he smiled when he replied, “But I’m still not going to retake the buckboard scene!”
Wyler left the set early and went off to Rome. He gave his editor Robert Swink “complete authority” over the scoring, dubbing and editing, and even the option of shooting a new ending, which Swink did. It was if Wyler had lost interest. Perhaps he understood it wasn’t one of his top pictures, though it was popular in the theaters. In fact The Big Country 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? But unfortunately it had cost so much in the end that Wyler and Peck barely saw a penny from it. Peck said, “There were a lot of good things about the movie but I frankly don’t think it was the audience’s fault. It was our fault.”
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, bad atmosphere or no, it was a great line-up and this picture is worthy of our attention, e-pards, trust me.