Historical Circuit: William Wyler’s 1958’s ‘The Big Country’ Brings Heart to the West

Jean Simmons and Gregory Peck in 1958's "The Big Country"
United Artists’ “The Big Country”

TITLE OF FILM: “The Big Country”
FILM YEAR: 1958
DIRECTOR: William Wyler
WRITER: Robert Wyler, Sy Bartlett, James R. Webb
STARRING: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors

SYNOPSIS:

James McKay (Gregory Peck) arrives in a small town out west to join his fiancé Patricia (Carroll Baker) after a period apart. McKay is East Coast born and bred and a fish out of water on the new frontier. He is a gentleman. He is not a showboater. McKay’s behavior is in stark contrast to most of the characters he comes across, as well as Patricia, who is scrappy, spoiled and hot-headed.

Patricia’s father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), is the owner of a large ranch and has been engaged for years in a fight with the owner of a nearby ranch, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), over water rights, among other things. The war between the two families is having far-reaching effects. Hannassey has four sons who are constantly looking for trouble. Terrill’s foreman, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), is loyal to a fault. School teacher, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), owns a large chunk of land herself and is often in the middle of the two families’ strong-arming.

In “The Big Country,” McKay must come to terms with his new home and those who live there. He must ultimately decide if he can live in this world or if his character is too different to fit in with the likes of these men and women out west.

OBSERVATIONS:

William Wyler is one of the most respected directors in the history of film. His career began in the silent era, where he directed 27 westerns for Universal Studios. He transitioned to talkies in 1930. From 1936 until his last film in 1970, thirteen of Wyler’s films were nominated for best picture (with three wins). Personally, Wyler was nominated for the best director Oscar twelve times (with three wins). Throughout his career, he directed thirty-six Oscar-nominated performances (with fourteen of these actors winning). These are distinctions no other film director holds.

Part of Wyler’s success is that his films are not boxed into any particular genre. He filled each film with such passion and expertise that there is little room to debate that Wyler had the ability to tell any story. His film credits include “Wuthering Heights” (1939), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “The Heiress” (1949), “Roman Holiday” (1953), “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Funny Girl” (1968).

Wyler used California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park and the Sierra Foothills as the backdrop for much of the film’s action. The score, written by Jerome Moross, breathes of classic western and is larger-than-life. His use of strings and horns would make anyone want to mount a horse and ride off into the sunset.

Clocking in at over two hours and forty-five minutes, “The Big Country” spends a great deal of time on long transition scenes. In between scenes of play, the music swells, and the long shot is on full display. The editor could have cut these scenes out with no plot omissions. However, the western often need those moments to gain a true sense of landscape. And the landscape here is truly remarkable.

The casting is spot-on. Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker play opposing women with a depth not often seen in female characters of this era. Charlton Heston takes on a rare supporting role. His Leech (the name speaks volumes) is a great adversary to Gregory Peck’s holier-than-thou McKay (similar in ways to his portrayal of Atticus Finch in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”). On a side note, there is a fight scene between the two men about two-thirds of the way through the film that is beautifully shot. (Keep a look out!)

Burl Ives in “The Big Country”

However, the true stand-out among the group is Burl Ives. He is not tall, dark and handsome, but he has the meatiest role in “The Big County.” His deep voice and the rhythmic delivery of his lines makes it damn near impossible to not be entranced when he is on screen. The moment he threatens his own son with murder is one of the strongest scenes in the film.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

Due to the expanse of “The Big Country,” the film is able to touch on many themes classic to the western. There are ranchers protecting their lands. There is a Shakespearean-esque feud between families. The damsel in distress is front and center. There are campfires and drinking, gunfights and quick-draw duels.

The one western theme that “The Big County” omits is the calvary fighting Native Americans. In this film, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are not defined by their race, but by their actions. This is a nice change of pace from most westerns of that time.

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

When the film was released, critics complimented the production’s extravagant scenery. Variety’s review summed it up best. “‘The Big County’ lives up to its title. The camera has captured a vast section of the southwest with such fidelity that the long stretches of dry country, in juxtaposition to tiny western settlements, and the giant canyon country in the arid area, have been recorded with almost three-dimensional effect.”

According to the book “The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western,” written by Michael Coyne, President Dwight D. Eisenhower loved “The Big Country” so much, he screened the film four times at the White House. Perhaps, Eisenhower felt a kin to the film’s cool and passive protagonist in the midst of a heated and violent world.

The academy deservingly nominated Jerome Moross for Best Score. Burl Ives won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award in 1958 for Best Supporting Actor.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

The Western was one of the most popular film genres during the 1950s and 60s. Since the 1970s, the “classic” western film has been on the decline in popularity. Although they are not as in demand now, there have been some powerful westerns released recently. They prove the genre still has a lot of life left.

Quentin Tarantino used his twisted mind to tell a bloody and off-beat western, whodunit tale with “The Hateful Eight” (2015). And in 2017, Scott Cooper wrote and directed one of the best westerns in recent memory. “Hostiles,” tells the story of a deeply flawed man who must escort an ailing Cheyenne chief and his family back home before the chief’s death. The film stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, and Wes Studi. Each delivered an Oscar-worthy performance.

Charlton Heston and Charles Bickford in “The Big Country”

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

“The Big Country” is ultimately a film about the honor in character. Peck’s James McKay does not need to prove himself to anyone. He is under the impression that the only opinion that truly matters is his own. The men and women who confront him throughout the film do not understand the moral code he follows. This conflict is what drives the film, and it is also a conflict that people today deal with often.

No matter what others around us may think or feel, it is important to remain true to ourselves. We must live our own lives by our own standards. After all, we are the ones that have to live with the choices we make.

“The Big Country is available streaming free on Amazon Prime. It is available for rent/purchase on VUDU, YouTube, Google Play and Apple.

What are your thoughts on “The Big Country”? Let us know in the comments below!

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