Directed by William Wyler
Written by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, and Robert Wilder (based on the novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton)
Spoiler alert: dreams stay with you, like a lover's voice, 'cross the mountainside (okay, okay, moderate)
When William Wyler's career as a director began at Universal in 1925, it began with the Western; and while everything about today's subject is more sophisticated—and up to seven times as long, his first films being two-to-five-reel shorts, whereas this film is a 166 minute epic—it makes a great deal of sense that the man who made little movies about whitehat heroes with names like "The Crook Buster" and "The Stolen Ranch" also made The Big Country. I wouldn't call it simplistic, because it's never devoid of complexity, but it is straightforward, and once that geometric progression of runtime is accounted for, I doubt it's any less straightforward than any of his silent Westerns (it is, in any event, no less so than "The Stolen Ranch," I believe the earliest Wyler film that's available to me at all*). I wouldn't be surprised if the handful of talkie Westerns he'd made during the intervening thirty years were more shaded and ambiguous than this; I mean, his very first talkie, Hell's Heroes, has ambiguity (and a swear!) right in the name. I don't know when the very last major Western was made that couldn't be slapped with the label "revisionist"—for if you believe Wikipedia's editors, even The Magnificent Seven is a revisionist Western, though your guess is as good as mine as to what, precisely, it revises—but if it's not Magnificent Seven that closed the classic era (realistically, it's probably How the West Was Won, but Magnificent Seven would represent going out with a great bang) then maybe it was The Big Country. And that wouldn't be so bad either.
Even so, you could make the argument that The Big Country itself is "revisionist," only in the opposite way, retreating so far into stolid squareness that it practically becomes the stick up its own ass—it stars Gregory Peck, incidentally—thereby using that to challenge its genre instead. It's not necessarily the argument I'd make, not least because I'm ill-equipped to make pronouncements about the Western as a half-century spanning movement (50s sci-fi films, Bible epics, 70s disaster flicks, Old Hollywood musicals, sure, I'll pontificate about those genres all day if you'll let me, but I've reviewed about six Westerns in eight years, so you do the math). The point is, it's the most non-violent Western that I've personally ever seen—and not just anti-violent, which is to say, violent, but half-heartedly chiding you with an "it's bad" (though it's obliged to dip into this mode occasionally, particularly toward the end). I mean non-violent, embodying an ethos of unusual passivity in a hero who, in turn, comes off damned near Christlike in his capacity for turning cheeks. Believe it or not (but you should), this Western aligns philosophically with Christianity more than the Bible movie it paved Wyler's way for, the following year's Ben-Hur, which is of course two full movies' worth of furious revenge before it even really starts to be about Jesus.
Our peaceful hero, then, is Jim McKay (Peck), scion of an Eastern shipping family but more hand's-on than that would suggest, a veteran ship's captain who's come out to the inland ocean of the West, which is referred to, yes, far more than is reasonable as "a big country." (Nonetheless, in this frequently rather-funny movie, Peck eventually bites into a scene partner's line with a "You're not going to call it a big country, are you? Because if you did I'd be disappointed.")
The only destiny Jim wants to manifest, anyway, is his wedding to Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), whom he'd met during her education back East, but who has now returned to her father Henry (Charles Bickford), almost uniformly referred to as "the Major" in deference to his former rank in the Confederate Army, on his enormous ranch out in (throws dart) probably Texas. The first proper scene gives us a telling introduction to Jim, as he's picked up to be taken to the Terrill estate by their foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston, and it's not the name I'd have chosen, since if it has any thematic resonance it's pretty tenuous), who shows up late. Nearly the very first line of dialogue Peck gets ends with him joking, "I thought I might be in the wrong town," and, taking a look at Jim's Eastern suit, Eastern bearing, and his incongruous derby hat, Heston swallows the retort that it's quite clear that Steve must've been thinking.
He's taken to Patricia, who's hanging out with her friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), heir to another one of the big chunks of land hereabouts, the "Big Muddy" with the only local river running through it. By a tradition that started with Julie's grandfather, it's provided the neighboring estates' cattle with water in times of drought, and therefore it's become the focus of her neighbors' designs and a potential flashpoint. Steve's sent on ahead—and it's fairly transparent that half of his problem with Jim is that he is absolutely incandescent with jealousy over Patricia, and chafing at the limitations of his caste—and Jim and Patricia mosey on to the Terrill estate a little later, only to be interrupted by the violent hazing of the adult sons of the third big family here, the dirty, scummy Hannasseys, led by the biggest and eldest, Buck (Chuck Connors). Jim stuns Patricia when he snatches the rifle out of her hands and endures their jeering and assaults, unwilling to escalate it to a fight. It's one ignominious first day, and it doesn't get much better the following morning as Jim clucks his tongue at the Major's reprisal raid on the Hannassey farm, refuses to rise to the bait when Steve invites him to ride the Terrills' half-wild stallion "Old Thunder," and in just every possible regard acts like what his father-in-law-to-be, his fiancée, and his future employee would consider a total puss. Yet he's not inactive, and while the Hannassey's patriarch Rufus (Burt Ives) makes it clear that this feud will draw blood, especially if the Terrills keep scattering their cattle off the river, Jim hatches a scheme behind their backs to buy the Big Muddy from Julie, and thereby become peacemaker. Unfortunately, this plan may not work out as smoothly as he hopes.
So, basically, it's the anti-Fistful of Dollars, an anachronistic comparison, sure, but in the rear-view of a half-century on, it's a movie that you couldn't not compare this one to, with its hero going back and forth and doing everything in his power to stop what amounts to a gang war; naturally, substantial dramatic irony gets packed into the production design and costume design that marks the Terrills' and Hannasseys' respective estates, not to mention the very casting of their inhabitants, the former initially coming off genteel and even Eastern (or, more accurately, Old Southern) in their orderly, militaristic elegance, while the latter look like they literally crawled out of slime (and in the sons' case, might've). It's disorienting how quickly it becomes apparent—the film and its audience are barely ahead of its protagonist on this count—that there is not a dime's worth of difference between them and in fact the Terrills might be ever-so-slightly worse because they truly believe they're better. It's not ambiguous the way a revisionist Western might be, but only because Jim, as our guide to this ugly patch of Texas, effectively places them all on the same moral level. Buck does get to be the one real blackhat amidst all the (dark) gray, as he's effectively irredeemable; but, in the film's extremes, it becomes clear that even this piece of shit had a father who loves him.
The constant tension, then, is whether Jim finally winds up saying "fuck it" and falls to the savage level of everyone else in his new environment, with the film frequently testing him with the contempt of the girlfriend he moved out here to marry and the many humiliations of being the most peaceable man in a society whose rules have been defined by the most violent ones. The usual version of this story, of course, would involve the innocent thrown into the crucible, but Big Country puts a spin on that, with a man who's already rich and middle-aged, who knows about all there is to know about himself (which dovetails pretty compellingly with how willfully, perversely naive he seems to be about his new home); and it tempers this with what is plainly a lifetime of man's man experience which has already made him plenty hard, without making him into something sharp.
The downside is that there is no arc, and we're stuck with a moralizing scold whose primary narrative value is that he's the best bet to allow us to navigate 166 minutes of sprawling yet fairly-simple plot—but those 166 minutes permit Jim's flintier facets to be revealed slowly, and they can be surprising, like in a bit of shockingly nasty comedy where he trades horror stories about the sea with Julie, in exchange for the worst Western atrocities she can recall. (It's even remarkable on a formal level, with Wyler employing a trick that I'm sure must be older than this movie, an increasingly-loud, ultimately-deafening bit of strings from composer Jerome Moross that wholly overrides Simmons and her terrible tale of ants eating the flesh of men buried alive; I expect at least Hitchcock had done this—likely more than once—but I'm only certain it's older than Big Country because Wyler does it as a two-part gag, and a highly effective one.) In any event, this is the danger and appeal of the straight arrow—he can move only in a straight line—but, you know, Superman's great, and Jim may not be dynamic but in his constant evocation of sheer uprightness, he's never actually boring.
The casting helps, and I don't know if there could be a more perfect "Jim McKay" than Peck, whom I don't always like (for example, in Wyler's Roman Holiday, where his general chemical inertness drags down a movie that otherwise I'd be happy to call a classic), but the prickly schoolmarmish quality that was, for better or worse, his hallmark, is flawlessly deployed here, with the script channeling him towards a weird combination of mellowness and self-righteousness that makes for a curious magnetism. I've got no right to have a favorite Peck performance, but of the ones I've seen, this probably edges out The Yearling, with which it naturally has a lot in common. (It's worth noting that the project originated with Peck, co-producing here alongside Wyler; and their fights, along with Wyler's infamous perfectionism and slavedriving of actors, put them off speaking terms for several years.)
Perhaps it's a result of Peck, anyway, that The Big Country became a movie of almost-worrisomely big men—Heston and Connors provide each faction their own statuesque hulk, and Connors gives Clint Walker a run for his money in mid-century Hollywood's ridiculously massive men (and even Ives is, well, exceptionally wide, approaching a perfectly-spherical construction for his old coot archetype). It's a visual strategy that pays off handsomely indeed when Jim belatedly answers Steve's violent challenge, having refused to fight him in front of a crowd, and they beat the living shit out of each other for seemingly five straight minutes in a scene that I'd bet good money that Western fan John Carpenter saw and loved. Cut by Wyler's frequent editor during this period, Robert Swink (amongst others, but it's a big movie), in a few medium shots alternating with lengthy and extremely far-away landscape shots, it's another strange, but strangely-correct contradiction, not ever conventionally "exciting," but charged with a kind of epic grandeur regardless. It's simultaneously just a pair of faintly silly men, and two titanic historical forces, battling it out till, finally, they understand each other. (For whatever reason—not the filmmaking, but maybe just the tone it strikes—it reminds me a great deal of the tense confrontation between another Heston character, John the Baptist, and the man he learned to respect.)
This puts it in line, of course, with the classic Western theme of lawlessness giving way to the civilizing impulse. The Big Country was Wyler's first super-widescreen film—not CinemaScope, but Technirama, and there are shots that suggest "CinemaScope mumps" had not been worked out for its competitor process—and he had, incredibly, barely even worked in color before, with I believe only 1956's Friendly Persuasion, not counting his WWII documentaries. Meanwhile, cinematographer Franz Planer, with 130 credits to his name, might somehow have never worked on a Western before. Well, there's sometimes a cumbersomeness in Wyler's 'Scope-ratio direction this first time out, particularly in the early going, though it's a productive cumbersomeness (he can be unsure of how to fill out the frame, which, after all, works out for Jim's character), but soon enough he's expositing psychological relationships solely through the use of widescreen space. Consider the way Heston is placed into position around Patricia (Heston's performance helps, with his stock-in-trade of coiled-up anguish), explaining his lust, and his feelings of betrayal, long before the film makes them explicit.
Out of doors, Wyler and Planer find a surplus of fittingly "Western" compositions, and the movie mostly looks like you'd want a classic Western to. If it were in black-and-white, I think it'd look exactly like you'd want a classic Western to. But while I would readily believe that Planer's lack of genre experience and Wyler's present lack of facility with color explain why The Big Country winds up with such a thoroughly unromantic vision of the American West, I kind of love this about it. It's maybe no less "an idea of the West" than you'd see in, say, a John Ford movie, but it's a more grounded idea, one defined by yellow scrub grasses and a dusty brown tint, a place that isn't quite fit for human habitation but isn't really conventionally pretty, either. This sort of realist take in the shooting locations and color reproduction, combined with the same sort of iconic landscape compositions you might try to get out of Monument Valley, winds up being awfully useful, because Jim views it through the same pragmatic lens but also sees some inchoate quality within it. But even then there's the dreamspace of a geologically-suspect ash-white canyon. It doesn't look like anything else in the movie, setting itself apart visually as the kind of poetic realm that the film's otherwise scrupulously eschewed, establishing this gash in the earth as the place where the West, essentially, died.
There are problems; the most in-your-face is just the way that Patricia vanishes like a ghost once the plot's finished with her, which is absurd considering she's been the second most important character for nearly two hours of screentime—hell, even on the film's chosen level, she's the thing desired by its two most important men. The other, more foundational problem is just that this is a pacifist Western, and the "Western" part is plainly going to win out, or they'd have never made the movie. That's not necessarily bad in principle: the film invites you to speculate on the extent of its tragic ending more than suggesting it won't have one (if it does, it's purely through Peck's performance trying to force a happy ending through sheer will).
But it has hiccups, particularly in the one piece of filmmaking in the picture I'd consider bad other than its opening titles—I didn't mention them, but they're plausibly the worst thing Saul Bass ever did, stretched out shitty images of horses and such that I think might've been originally filmed in ordinary widescreen (!), and more reminiscent of a Film Ventures International opening than a Saul Bass one. Anyway, the big hiccup comes when Moross's otherwise-outstanding score just gets way too into the gesture of suicidal loyalty Major Terrill's men make to him after his appeal to their masculinity, apparently unaware that while it is, sure, cool, it's supposed to be a sad reflection on how they're choosing the wrong code to live by. In every other respect, the ending is thrilling, paying off on the Chekhov's dueling pistols laid out in the first act, and getting genuinely teary in its denouement when it confirms that everyone involved are human beings even if they frequently didn't act like it. (There's indication that Swink actually directed the ending due to the impending Ben-Hur, and if so, he did a fantastic job working from Wyler's template.) Altogether, The Big Country is a strong example of 50s longer-form filmmaking, magisterial but never bloated, satisfying and even surprising, despite a set-up that would seem to foreclose on either being a possibility.
*1926's "The Stolen Ranch" is fairly entertaining for a silent programmer, and it's cute that it's so old that although it's very much a Western, it isn't a period piece—or, if it is, then it's a period piece set in, at the earliest, 1919. I suppose from a film-historical perspective, or a Wyler-historical perspective (or even just a historical-historical perspective), the most interesting thing about "The Stolen Ranch" is how crucially its story revolves around WWI-vintage post-traumatic stress disorder, with its hero Breezy Hart (Fred Humes) helping his shell-shocked best friend (William Bailey) bamboozle and beat up the badmen who are trying to steal his ranch with a forged will. This aspect of it prefigures The Best Years of Our Lives, not to mention Wyler's own WWII combat stress, pretty forcefully, though (perhaps inevitably) it also has a much more canned resolution for it. I'd even recommend the film, albeit not to just anybody, as the copy available on YouTube doesn't even have a musical score attached. Yet the fact I didn't fall asleep at 2 a.m. while watching an hour-long, literally-silent film must be some kind of testament to its robust construction. It's funny, it's got fistfights, and it's got a rad horse stunt, too! (So does The Big Country: Wyler once remarked that he used to compulsively imagine ways for a man to get on a horse, which sounds terrible.) But what the hell, out of completism, "The Stolen Ranch," the first Wyler film still available, while not really the material of a full review, ought to get some kind of recognition here. Score, for what it is: 6/10
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