Thursday, February 20, 2014
"THE BIG COUNTRY" (1958) Review
"THE BIG COUNTRY" (1958) Review
William Wyler and Gregory Peck first worked together in the 1953 comedy classic, "ROMAN HOLIDAY". The director and the actor became close friends and spent a few years trying to find the right property for which they could co-produce and work on together. Peck finally came across a magazine story, which eventually transformed to the movie screen as 1958's "THE BIG COUNTRY".
The magazine story in question happened to be the 1957 Saturday Evening Post serialized article called "Ambush at Blanco Canyon". Written by future Matt Helm author, Donald Hamilton; the story was basically about a Baltimore sea captain, who travels to Texas to claim his bride, the daughter of a wealthy rancher; and finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between his future father-in-law and less wealthy rancher.
"THE BIG COUNTRY" began with the arrival of sea captain Jim McKay to a small, dusty town in western Texas to join his fiancée Patricia Terrill at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Henry Terrill. Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey, the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. Patricia's friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon, owns the "Big Muddy", a large ranch with a vital water supply. Although she cannot afford to hire men to operate her ranch, Julie is caught in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud, as she has been allowing both Terrill and Hannassey to use her water for their cattle, while both ranchers long to buy her land in order to put the other man out of business. McKay refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing to stop Hannassey's trouble-making son Buck from harassing him during his and Patricia's ride to the Terrill ranch; and he declines a challenge by Terrill's foreman, Steve Leech, to ride an unruly horse. When McKay decides to purchase Julie's ranch and maintain her promise to provide water for the two rivals, matters eventually escalate into romantic problems and more violence between Terrill and Hannassey.
During his first three years as a director, William Wyler worked only on Westerns. Then between 1929 and 1940, he directed two Westerns - "HELL'S HEROES" (1930) and "THE WESTERNER" (1940). Wyler waited another seventeen-to-eighteen years before he worked on his final Western, 1958's "THE BIG COUNTRY". Although many movie fans seemed to like "THE BIG COUNTRY", very few seemed to regard it as one of his finest films. I cannot decide whether or not I would view it as one of his best films. But if I must be honest, I do consider it as one of my favorite Wyler movies . . . even if my opinion of it has declined slightly over the years.
My recent viewing of "THE BIG COUNTRY" made me realize that it might be at least 40 minutes too long. A tight story about an Easterner getting caught in the middle of a land feud did not seem epic enough for a movie with a running time of 165 minutes. After he had finished production on the film, Wyler rushed into pre-production for his next film,"BEN-HUR". Co-producer and star Gregory Peck had feuded with him over a scene that he felt needed some serious editing. tried to convince him to finish "THE BIG COUNTRY" with some much needed editing - a feud that lasted two years. And their feud was not helped by Wyler's preoccupation with "BEN-HUR". In the end, I believe that Peck had a right to be concerned. I feel that the movie needed a good deal of editing. Wyler wasted a good deal of film on Buck Hannassey and his two brothers' hazing of Jim McKay during the latter and Patricia Terrill's ride to her father's ranch. The movie also wasted film on McKay's self-challenge to ride the very horse that Steve Leech had earlier dared him to ride - Old Thunder. That scene took too damn long. Wyler also seemed enraptured over the eastern California and western Arizona landscape that served as Texas in the movie. Perhaps he became too enraptured. In the end, it seemed as if Wyler's interest in Western culture and landscape had almost spiraled out of control. Even worse, "THE BIG COUNTRY" almost became a series of far shots to indicate the size of the movie and its setting.
Despite its flaws, "THE BIG COUNTRY" still remains a big favorite of mine. Robert Wilder, along with Jessamyn West, James R. Webb and Sy Bartlett did a first-rate job in adapting Hamilton's story. Their efforts, along with Wyler's direction, produced what I believe turned out to be one of the most unique Westerns I have ever seen. What I enjoyed about "THE BIG COUNTRY" was that it took the public's image of what a Western - whether made in Hollywood or published in novels and magazines - and turned it on its head. Rarely one would find a Western in which its hero is a mild-mannered personality with the guts to reject the prevailing ideal of a Western man. The 1939 movie "DESTRY RIDES AGAIN" came close to it, but its quiet hero was an expert gunman, despite his "pacifist" ways. Even the Jim McKay eventually gives in to his own aggression, due to his developing feelings toward his fiancee's best friend, Julie Maragon. But he also ends up learning a good deal about himself, thanks to Rufus Hannassey. I found it interesting that movie made a big deal over an eventual conflict between Terrill and Hannassey's two "lieutenants" - Terrill's foreman Steve Leech and Hannassey's oldest son Buck. And yet, both ended up clashing with McKay over two women - Pat Terrill and Julie. And their clashes with Jim ended with ironic twists one rarely or never finds in many other Westerns.
"THE BIG COUNTRY" featured an excellent cast led by the always remarkable Gregory Peck. I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate portrayal of a character many might find uninteresting. I think that Peck's Jim McKay would not have been that interesting in a modern-day tale. But as a character that upset the notions of manhood in the West . . . he was perfect for this story. As I had stated earlier, even McKay could not contain his emotions any longer. And Peck did a fine job in slowly revealing his character's contained emotions - whether it was his dislike of Steve Leech, who constantly taunted him out of jealousy toward his engagement to Patricia; his frustrated anger at both Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey's unwillingness to end their destructive feud; or his anger at Buck Hannassey, whom he viewed as a threat to a woman he eventually grew to love, namely Julie. Not surprisingly, Peck did an excellent job in holding this movie together.
But there were other performances that also caught my eye. The always dependable Jean Simmons gave a charming and solid performance as schoolmarm Julie Maragon. Charles Bickford, who had first worked with Wyler in "HELL'S HEROES", did a fine job in revealing Henry Terrill's malice and ego behind a dignified facade. "THE BIG COUNTRY"proved to be the last movie for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya (known for a famous line from the 1948 movie,"THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE". What I enjoyed about Bedoya's portrayal of Terrill ranch hand Ramón Guiteras was his ability to reveal his character's wisdom behind the cliché of the childlike immigrant. I would go even further to state that Bedoya's Ramón proved to be the wisest character in the story.
Chuck Connors is finally receiving some recognition of his performance as the blowhard Buck Hannassey and I say that it is about time. Most people tend to dismiss his character as a one-note bully . . . a typical cliché of what one might find in a Western. But thanks to Wyler's direction and Connors' acting skills, the latter also revealed the pathetic boy who had more or less longed for the love and respect from a parent who never liked him and who may have bullied him. Charlton Heston's Steve Leech also proved to be a surprise. His character also started out as another cliché - the solid and virile Western cowboy. Thanks to Heston's skillful performance, he developed Steve into a mature man who began to question the West's code regarding manhood and who realized that the man he admired - Henry Terrill - may not have been as admirable as he had perceived for so long. One of Heston's best moments on the screen was his quiet and determined effort to stop Terrill from the leading their cowboys into an ambush set up Hannassey in Blanco Canyon.
I was surprised to realize that the Patricia Terrill character, portrayed by Carroll Baker, struck me as more of a contrast to Buck Hannassey than Steve Leech. Whereas Buck longs for his father's respect and admiration, Patricia has her father's love in spades. Perhaps too much of it. Buck has spent most of his life being bullied by Hannassey. Patricia has spent most of her life being spoiled. Buck reacts with violence or bullying tactics when he does not get his way. Patricia resorts to temper tantrums. And she turns out to be just as childish and pathetic. I was shocked to learn that Baker now possesses a reputation for being a sex symbol. It seemed the public has tacked this reputation on her, based upon a handful of movies she appeared in the 1960s. I find this criminal, for it is plain to me that she was a very talented actress, who did a superb job in capturing the spoiled and childish nature of Pat Terrill. I feel she gave one of the best performances in the movie. But the one cast member who walked away with an award for his performance was singer-actor Burl Ives, who portrayed Henry Terrill's rival, the seemingly brutish and sharp-tongued Rufus Hannassey. I might as well say it . . . he deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Some have claimed that he actually won for his performance in another movie, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF". Others have claimed that he won for his performances in both movies. I have never seen "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF". But I cannot deny that he was SUPERB in "THE BIG COUNTRY". Ives had all of the best lines and he did wonders with it . . . especially in his scenes with Chuck Connors. His Hannassey seemed to be, without a doubt, not only the most interesting character in the movie, but also I feel that Ives gave the best performance.
Even though I found some of the movie's photography excessive and its editing almost non-existent, I still found myself enraptured over cinematographer Franz Planer's work. He really allowed the eastern California and western Arizona locations to live up to the movie's title. Without Wyler's post-production input, Robert Belcher and John Faure's editing pretty much came up short. However, there was one scene in which their work, along with Wyler's direction and Planner's camera, made it one of the most memorable in the movie. I am sure that very few have forgotten that moment in which a silently exasperated Leech changed his mind about following Terrill into Blanco Canyon. This entire sequence was enhanced by the stirring score written by Jerome Moross. Speaking of the composer, Moross received a much deserved Oscar nomination for the movie's score. Personally, I would have preferred it he had actually won. In my opinion, his score for "THE BIG COUNTRY" is one of the best ever in Hollywood history.
Is "THE BIG COUNTRY" one of the best movies ever directed by the legendary William Wyler? I really cannot say. I have seen better movies directed by him. The movie has some series flaws, especially in regard to editing and too many far shots. But thanks to an unusual story, an excellent cast led by Gregory Peck, a superb score by Jerome Moross and some not-too-shabby direction by Wyler, "THE BIG COUNTRY" remains one of my favorite Westerns of all time.