The Big Country (1958) can probably be summed up in one of Hollywood’s well traveled cliches:The dude goes west. That idea has been around since silent movies. Some Easterner usually portrayed as a tenderfoot makes his way to the last frontier and through a series of circumstances transforms himself into a Western hero who the locals can’t help but be proud of.
In this Gregory Peck western celebrated director William Wyler gave his interpretation of this oft repeated tale. Starring Peck. Jean Simmons and an all star cast. 1958 like the decade as a whole was a rough one for movies.
The interloper called television which many movie people hoped was just a flash in the pan was here to stay. Not only a permanent fixture but by the late fifties it had cut deep into movie revenue.
Hollywood was under siege so executives felt the only way to fight back was to make the movies bigger and longer than normal (well that and not make so many films). Sprawling landscapes with larger than life characters and more adult themes.
Did it work? To a degree but nowhere near the level they hoped for. Television was a juggernaut that was only going to become more widespread no matter what Hollywood did or did not do.
Big Country is one of those big movies. Peck is James McKay a former sea captain who comes west to marry his fiancee Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker). Right from the start he has trouble as Buck Hannassy (Chuck Connors) and a couple of his cohorts harass McKay and Patricia on the way to her father’s ranch.
The harassment is not all that bad but it’s McKay’s nonchalant attitude towards it that causes trouble. Patricia is embarrassed and humiliated that her husband to be refuses to fight back.
It only snowballs from there.
When McKay refuses to ride the wild bronco then Patricia, her father Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the ranch foreman Steve Leech (played by an ornery than usual Charlton Heston) are convinced that he is a coward. It doesn’t help matters that Leech is in love with Patricia.
Add to that McKay finds himself in the middle of a feud between the Terrills and Hannassys. Rufus Hannassay (Burl Ives in an Academy Award winning performance) leads a motley low class crew but the Terrills for all their hoity-toity ways are just as scummy if not more so. Indeed Rufus Hannassay on occasion displays more integrity than any o the Terrills can ever hope to match.
If there is the occasional truce between the two sides it’s thanks to the Big Muddy. The Big Muddy is a ranch owned by Julie (the wonderful Jean Simmons) who grants water rights to both sides in an effort to keep the peace.
But it’s the definition of what it means to be a man that Wyler tackles head on in the Big Country. For far too long that definition meant reaching for the violence. There is no forgiveness, apologizing or compromise. All of that is considered backing down and a real man can never back down.
The kind of thinking that believes every mistake, disagreement or differing viewpoint is a sign of disrespect or more directly a challenge to one’s manhood. When you’re challenged you fight. There is no other recourse and in the world of Major Terrill, Patricia, Leech and the Hannassys no other action is acceptable.
It’s something you see in modern action movies. The over the top machismo that masquerades as strength. Once the violence is unleashed there’s no abating it. Everything shifts into overdrive and the only way to feed the beast is to give it more violence. Graphic, raw in your face but most importantly unapologetic.
In the late 1950’s this took the form of westerns. They may have not been explicit like today’s films but there was a sustained savagery that rarely if ever deviated from the accepted norm and if it did then the only thing to do was smack it down right then and there. You hear it in John Ford’s The Searchers when Ethan Horton tells one of his compadres, “Don’t apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”
As Wyler illustrates in Big Country violence enslaves the characters and alters their whole mindset. Never mind James McKay is a former sea captain who has probably seen his share of violence. Forget the East Coast in the 19th century could be a pretty harsh environment.
It’s his rejection of what they know to be true that scares them. They mock it and try to explain to Peck how it really is. The land forces them to act this way. “Out here” is the all in one catchphrase that gives them total absolution.
When Peck in turn tries to explain to them life doesn’t have to be like that he may as well have been speaking in some ancient Himalayan dialect. It’s not they can’t understand but honestly don’t want to. They feel the only way to make a man of Gregory Peck is to force their violence on him. After all it’s for his own good.
And force it on him they do. From his fight with Leech to a duel with Buck Hannassy there is no escaping the idea of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. ” Except the difference here is Wyler strips away any concept of heroism in The Big Country.
McKay doesn’t emerge a better person. He’s been tarnished like the rest of them but they don’t get that until it’s too late just like they don’t get that all consuming hate destroys everything around it especially the haters themselves.
Ironically those themes reared their heads off camera. Except for possibly Burl Ives it seems no one really enjoyed the shoot. Wyler’s penchant for multiple retakes and directorial methods could test anyone’s patience.
Charles Bickford an actor known for his short fuse and cantankerous nature lived up to his reputation. Jean Simmons couldn’t bring herself to talk about the experience of making this movie for decades. Peck and Wyler who were co-producers of The Big Country didn’t speak to each other for 3 years and never worked together again.
Many a potentially good movie has been destroyed by so much animosity. Fortunately Big Country is not one of them. Does it rank in the pantheon of great westerns? Probably not. But thanks to great talent in front of and behind the camera The Big Country remains a most entertaining film.