Westerns: The Big Country
Of all the genres in cinema my two favorites are musicals and westerns. Both are out of favor at the moment so few films are made in either. Still I want to talk here about the western in general and about one film in particular.
I think one of the reasons I like westerns so much is because it is the genre I grew up watching in the 1950s. In those days it seemed like every other film was a western. And the stars, all the big stars, had to make at least one western as a sort of career rite-of-passage. So even some definitely urban types like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart wound up in westerns. The most interesting and amusing is The Oklahoma Kid (1939) in which Cagney plays the title character and Bogart is his nemesis Whip McCord. The fun of this film is watching these two out-of-their-element dynamos playing their roles with such vitality and brio that they absolutely bring it off. I once showed it in a class and at the end the students applauded. Others who made westerns included Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Sea of Grass (1947) directed by Elia (On the Waterfront) Kazan of all people. Even the recently deceased Bronx heart throb Tony Curtis starred in a western once (The Rawhide Years – 1955). The genre was so ubiquitous we couldn’t get away from it even if we tried.
The other reason I love it is because it is so flexible. It can accommodate virtually every other genre as well. So over the years we’ve had Sci/Fi western ( The Beast of Hollow Mountain-1956), horror (Curse of the Undead -1959) , musical (Oklahoma – 1955),Mystery ( 5 Card Stud-1968), Psychological (Invitation to a Gunfighter -1964), Greek tragedy (The Furies-1950),epic (Duel in the Sun-1946),comedy (Paleface-1948),social realism (High Noon-1952),African American (Posse-1993) and the list goes on. One offbeat title would include Terror in a Tiny Town (1938) the all midget musical comedy western and there are others as well. But I don’t have time to go into them here. The point is the western appears to be the “Everyman” of the genres. But as I said before it’s very much out of favor. The only western of note in the last few years is Appaloosa (2008) with True Grit by the Cohen Brothers on the horizon.
One of my favorite westerns is one that isn’t much remembered today, The Big Country (1958). It is a big, sprawling, epic- like film that plays like the adaptation of a literary masterpiece or towering work. But it was derived from a modest sized novel (under 200 pages) by Donald Hamilton author of the Matt Helm spy series. So what we have with The Big Country is a film that expands the novel rather than compresses it as films adapted from books usually do. And interestingly enough this expansion doesn’t come from adding more narrative or deeper characterizations. It comes from the deliberate pacing of the film which clocks in at 2 hours and 47 minutes. And with the multiple camera set-ups that the director William Wyler employs in presenting each scene. Where another director might give you 3 perspectives Wyler here gives you 7 or 8, sometimes even more. Contemporary audiences when viewing this film often get impatient with it and wish sometimes audibly that things would just move faster. But when I think about when I first saw the film way back when, many in the audience then felt the same way. I wasn’t one. I like the pacing. I think it’s one of the film’s big virtues.
The plot is simplicity itself. In the middle of a vast expanse of territory (thus the title) two ruthless patriarchs the Major Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey are fighting for control of the water rights to a strip of land that separates their property. In the middle of this comes Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), an easterner who is preparing to marry the Major’s spoiled daughter and is told that he has to take the Major’s side in this blood feud. But McKay resists because he is not a man of violence. His father was killed in a duel that he thought was pointless. So with the best intentions he attempts to broker a peace between the two warring factions and finds his philosophy of non-violence tested in a variety of ways.
This film has a terrific all-star cast and that is one of its virtues. The two old buffalos are played by Charles Bickford (Terrill) and Burl Ives (Hannassey), a folk singer turned actor who later abandoned acting for singing. He won an Academy Award for his performance in the film. In a surprisingly small supporting role is Charlton Heston as Steve Leech the Major’s right hand man. Heston at first refused the film but was later persuaded to take it by his agent. It was a smart move because it got him the lead in Wyler’s next film (Ben Hur-1959).It was good casting here because he’s set up as Peck’s rival and they balance each other out well on screen. Former professional athlete (basketball and baseball) Chuck Connors gives a terrific performance as Rufus’ loutish son Buck. And Carol Baker, fairly new to Hollywood at the point, this was her 4th film, plays the willful daughter of the Major. And lovely Jean Simmons plays Julie Maragon, the down to earth schoolteacher who owns the land that both men covet.
Some things to savor in this film are the wonderful use of the wide screen vistas that illustrate the title throughout. The Academy Award nominated score by Jerry Moros. Then there are the confrontations, the gun duels, the fist fights, the hard riding sequences so loveably and excitingly photographed along with just the sheer scope of the entire picture. This is a film that dazzles with its expertise, its professionalism, its confidence in the story and in the manner it is being told. Gregory Peck who was the main producer on the film has the least interesting role in this gallery of colorful characters. But he brings it off with the grace and quiet confidence that kept him a star for nearly six decades. When the film came out in 1958 there was a kind of grudging acceptance of its excellence from the critics. It was even nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture that year. But in the ensuing years the film has pretty much been forgotten in the gallery of great westerns. Now it’s no masterpiece like High Noon (1952), Shane (1953) or Unforgiven (1992) but it does have its fans. Mel Gibson, for example cites it as one of his inspirations while making Braveheart (1995). It may not be much remembered but it is still one of the best westerns made.