When it’s on: Sunday, 30 December (4.40 pm)
Something of a forgotten entry from the golden age of the Western, you will rarely find William Wyler’s The Big Country on Top Ten lists, and yet it remains one of my favourites. It’s unfashionably epic in scope, running twenty minutes short of the three-hour mark. It works either as the straightforward tale of two feuding families or as a parable of the Cold War, which was reaching its hottest point at the time. There’s no involvement with Native Americans, who are relegated to ‘mentioned anecdotally’ status. Its main character is an impossibly good fish out of water, constantly trying to comprehend the animosity raging around him, whilst the best performances arguably come from the film’s supporting players.
Wyler’s adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s short story, Ambush at Blanco Canyon, was his attempt to weave a classic tale related on the widest canvas. Together with cinematographer Franz Planer, his backdrop was the vast plains of some long tamed frontier land, endless grassland with blue skies that stretched forever, the idealised big country of the title, indeed the contrast between the two families is reflected stylistically in their locales – the wealthy Terrills live amidst lush greenery; bleached, stark limestone canyons mark the world of the redneck Hannasseys. The source of the factions’ tension is cattle, specifically grazing rights to the disputed Big Muddy and its vital water supply. This is owned by schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who wants no part in the strife and refuses to sell to either party.
The leaders of their respective clans are works of art, and with his considerable running time Wyler has adequate time to breathe life into these old school monsters. The Terrills are headed by Major Henry (Charles Bickford), all surface amiability yet perpetually looking down his nose at anyone who challenges his hegemony in his world. The main object of his ire is Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), an unrefined rancher who feels every glare of belittlement, whilst maintaining a raw nobility when it comes to resolving his own family matters. The Major’s daughter is Pat (Carroll Baker), his faithful foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), with sexual tension simmering between the pair as Steve aims to work his way into the Terrill’s fortunes.
It’s unfortunate for him that the film opens with Pat’s fiance arriving in town, a dapper, well-heeled gentleman who looks as though he belongs to the Old West as you or I might. This is James McKay (Gregory Peck), a retired naval captain with a completely defined set of values and plans for the troubled Big Muddy. Much is made of his genteel otherworldliness, especially by Leech, who sees him as entirely unworthy of at and does all he can to drive home the fact. McKay is ridiculed for refusing to take his turn on the volatile horse, Old Thunder, a kind of rite of passage for newcomers to the Terrill ranch, for wandering off alone for a couple of days and finally for backing down from a fight with Leech, who won’t accept his assertion that he hadn’t gotten himself lost. In turn, he steadily loses Pat’s respect, though she doesn’t learn until it’s too late that he’s not only tamed Thunder but also fought Leech to an exhausted stalemate, preferring to settle these matters privately due to having nothing to prove. By then, he’s already falling for Julie and in the thick of the hatred between both families as the Hannasseys try to match the teacher with Rufus’s errant son, Buck (Chuck Connors).
All this is filmed extravagantly, much of it enhanced by Jerome Moross’s sweeping score. How Moross lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s work on The Old Man and the Sea is anyone’s guess. It’s almost the perfect score, capturing virtuously the crackling tension and eulogising appropriately over those soaring shots of the big country. And yet one of the film’s best scenes – the dawn fistfight between McKay and Leech – has no musical accompaniment, the soundtrack instead dominated by connecting fists, groans and bodies colliding with the dirt, Wyler directing beautifully the pair framed like ants against the landscape.
The Big Country has time and space to build steadily to its climax, a ‘worth waiting for’ escalation of trouble until all parties clash in Blanco Canyon. By now, the principal characters have been explored so thoroughly that it’s tough to tell the good from the bad, though it’s clear the ugly is represented by Buck, who attempts to rape Julie before turning ‘yeller’ in his climactic duel with McKay. Moross’s music is never better than in the scene where Major Terrill and his men are about to enter the Canyon. Leech refuses to follow his boss; he knows the canyon is guarded with guns behind every rock and they’d be walking into a deathtrap. The rest follow Leech’s lead, leaving the Major marching in alone. As the music rises, the camera tracks the Major, a lone rider approaching him from behind. It’s Leech, who’s joined in turn by the rest of the marching party. The moment’s all the better because it contains no words, just looks and a smile on the Major’s face, Leech’s more enigmatic expression suggesting the conflict underneath, emphasised by how much quieter and more reflective he’s been since his fight with McKay.
A difficult shoot punctuated by various conflicts between the cast and crew that of course worked in producing the tension-filled overtones of the film, The Big Country remains great viewing. Peck looks like he’s in training for his career-defining Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The chemistry between Simmons and himself is too transparent to ensure the characters’ eventual union is anything less than obvious, particularly as Baker is called on to play the unsympathetic, spoiled Daddy’s girl as Pat. Burl Ives won an Academy Award for his role, and a towering performance his is, never less than in the scene where he gatecrashes the Terrill’s party to deliver some choice words to the Major. My pick is perhaps Heston, taking a supporting part so that he could work with Wyler and being rewarded with the starring role in the forthcoming Ben Hur. He’s too big, both physically and in terms of presence, for his own character, yet the contradiction works because he’s there, glowering in the background as McKay courts Pat, an ever present source of smouldering tautness that neither can ignore.
The Big Country: ****