I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.
Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).
None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)
In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.
Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)
Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”
McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.
I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.
Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)
The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).
I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray