Ya know, “It’s a Big Country!” Westerns and pacifism are like oil and water, but William Wyler, Jessamyn West and three other top writers found a way for Gregory Peck to surmount eight showdowns and never fire a pistol in anger. Jean Simmons and Charlton Heston win top acting honors, while Burl Ives earns his Oscar, Carroll Baker gets the thankless role and composer Jerome Moross makes western music history. MGM’s remastering job fixes the problems of an earlier Blu-ray, and even brings the title sequence up to tip top condition. Plus several hours of special extras.
The Big Country
KL Studio Classics
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 166 min. / Street Date June 5, 2018 / 60th Anniversary Edition / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors, Chuck Hayward, Dorothy Adams, Chuck Roberson.
Cinematography: Franz F. Planer
Film Editor: Robert Swink
Original Music: Jerome Moross
Written by Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler, James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett from the novel by Donald Hamilton
Produced by Gregory Peck, William Wyler
Directed by William Wyler
Here’s a movie restoration story with a happy ending — this new Kino disc of a ‘big’ western classic corrects a number of formatting errors found on the old MGM/Fox Blu-ray from 2011.
The Big Country is the Big Ranch Dynasty’ western that pushes the ‘big’ angle for everything it’s worth. It has an outsized cast, ultra-wide cinematography and a music score that, for expressing the expansive, vigorous American spirit, gives Aaron Copland a run for his money. This particular western subgenre demonstrates how ‘adult’ westerns tended to reflect contemporary political issues. Before the Big Ranch tale migrated to TV with Bonanza and The Big Valley, we saw epics based on sex (Duel in the Sun), manifest destiny (Red River), rampaging greed (The Furies), the sins of the fathers (The Man from Laramie), civil rights (Giant), womanly power (Forty Guns) and conservative values (Chisum).
The Big Country’s source novel is by Donald Hamilton, a pulp scribe that cleaned up with his series of Matt Helm thrillers, later made into a number of Dean Martin movies. Co-producers William Wyler and Gregory Peck apparently agreed on the idea of making their super-western comment indirectly on the big issue of their day, the Cold War nuclear standoff. To this end they hired author Jessamyn West to adapt the first screenplay. Ms. West’s book was the basis for Wyler’s previous picture, the sublime Friendly Persuasion, and a similar pacifist message hovers over this exciting and pleasing western adventure. When the range is free the film soars, especially with Jerome Moross’s spectacular music setting the tone. But The Big Country still seems a bit constrained by that durn civilizing Easterner-pacifist moralizing.
We’re told that the highly civilized producing partners Peck and Wyler fought like cats and dogs on the set, but I don’t know whether the trouble was over star prerogatives or creative differences. The strife can’t be seen in the final product, leaving Mr. Peck’s reputation as a Hollywood nice guy intact. We’re told that Wyler formed a solid bond with his special supporting star Charlton Heston, a happy relationship that led to a big acting assignment for Mr. Heston.
The Big Country’s West is a nearly treeless expanse that becomes a battleground for feuding pioneer families, despite the fact that said landscape barely looks fit for growing or raising anything. Led by the obstinate Rufus (Burl Ives), the rough-hewn Hannasseys live in miserable shacks. Rufus’ son Buck (Chuck Connors) is an irresponsible thug. The aristocratic Terrills have grown rich off their land and live in a Southern-style mansion. The proud Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) behaves like landed gentry, and thinks that the Hannaseys are scum that need to be wiped out.
The Major’s spirited, immature daughter Pat (Carroll Baker) is engaged to James McKay (Gregory Peck), a sea captain with an ambition to retire to the ranching life. But both father and daughter are upset by McKay’s disapproval of their blind aggression toward the Hannasseys. Because he won’t fight and won’t take part in Terrill’s raids on the Hannaseys, McKay is presumed a coward. The ranch ramrod Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), who is also in love with Pat, is quick to brand Jim as yellow. Seeing how shallow Pat’s affections really are, McKay drifts toward the more sensible Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), Pat’s best friend and the town schoolteacher. As it so happens, Julie owns a key strip of land that would give the water-parched Hannassey cattle access to a local stream called The Big Muddy. Rufus Hannassey gets the notion that if Buck were to marry Julie Maragon, he’d be able to finally checkmate The Major’s attempts to wipe the Hannasseys off the map.
Major Terrill’s party guests keep repeating “It’s a big country”, but apparently not big enough for the two warring families. Before one can say ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ a bitter conflict is established. Directors Robert Aldrich and Anthony Mann would have quickly accelerated the action to the level of gunplay, but this story takes roughly two hours to heat up. We mostly see various gang intimidation rituals. Buck Hannassey and his scurvy cowpokes haze the Easterner McKay during a buggy ride. The boorish, bird-brained Buck Hannassey gives Julie Maragon grief, under the illusion that she’s his girl (Papa Rufus does suggest that Buck take a bath once in a while). The Terrills’ reactions are always disproportionate. The Major’s men publicly beat and whip Buck’s friends right in town. Ignoring Jim McKay’s call for reason, The Major then drives the Hannassey cattle away from water, a move that even the hard-bitten Steve Leech must admit is going too far.
The Big Country mostly lacks show-off set pieces, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A half-hour in, when The Major rides out to make trouble, the action still remains bloodless. With the range war waged mostly with dialogue, the up- front romantic and dramatic issues take precedence. Wyler’s superior direction enlivens what are mostly rigid stock characters. Rufus Hannassey lays down an almost Biblical challenge to The Major, right at Pat and Jim’s engagement party. He tosses a shotgun at The Major’s feet, should he want to settle their differences right then and there.
We can tell from the start which girl will win the noble Jim McKay. Pat is a petulant airhead who doesn’t see what kind of gem she has in Jim. She expects Jim to fit into her dream of staying home with daddy and having a handsome husband as well. Julie recognizes McKay’s finer points and tries to bring Pat to her senses: “How many times does a man need to win you?”
Gregory Peck’s character is a curiously perfect liberal invention, a paragon of fairness and diplomacy who should be back in Washington running for President. The Western folk keep treating McKay, a seasoned sailor, as if he were a schoolboy. When McKay sets out alone to see the landscape for himself, the Terrills ignore the note he has left. They assume that he’s a lost puppy, even though he can find his way around the world with his simple navigation tools. They treat him like a tenderfoot, when an experienced 1870s sea captain would likely have seen more of life and dealt with more violence than any of these cow-punching clods.
Jim McKay never raises his voice or imposes his opinion on anyone. He never utters a single nautical phrase. Yet his previous fifteen years were presumably spent dishing out orders to surly crewmen on the high seas? McKay is disappointed that his future bride and father-in-law expect him to fight at the drop of an insult. He ought to either come right out and tell them what jerks they are, or just leave.
We enjoy the Jim McKay character despite his apparent perfection — he does everything but walk on water. Opposed to vigilante violence, he’s a man with many cheeks to turn, a combination handsome hunk and Mohandas Gandhi. Yet the civilized gift he chooses for The Major is a set of formal dueling pistols, tokens of an even older form of ritualized violence through which gentlemen settled their differences. Jim is perfectly willing to fight when the stakes are important enough, and he uses these exact same pistols. But it seems odd that this pacifist movie should credit the false nobility of older forms of violent barbarism — is the film saying that Eisenhower and Krushchev should duke it out with six-guns, High Noon style?
The McKay / Leech conflict is the best thing in the movie. The make or break key scene is McKay’s pre-dawn fistfight with Leech, done without witnesses as a point of honor. If this scene was Jessamyn West’s idea (I can’t say), it ends up supporting the thesis that fighting is a necessary aspect of the human character. By framing the fight in ever-widening angles, Wyler makes the combatants look like insignificant insects. It’s an interesting, if obvious, point. But think of what has occurred: McKay breaks his own vow by fighting on Leech’s uncivilized terms. Yet he’s gained something no mere talk could accomplish: although neither man will elaborate the point, Leech has come to respect and accept McKay. Leech’s loyalty to the unreasonable Major — his foster father — is broken. When do men respect each other? I’d say it’s when they see another man taking risks for what he believes, putting something on the line. Had McKay given the Terrills a finely worded thesis against aggression, intimidation and murder of thy neighbor, they’d have dismissed him as a lily-livered Easterner. Or in the Cold War context of 1958, a Pinko.
William Wyler is surely one of the best dramatic communicators among American directors, and makes the film’s rather simple relationships seem deep. He can direct action but isn’t particularly expressive with it; he’s better at maintaining the threat of violence as a constant presence. The most inspired bit of action is a throwaway gag. A rebellious Hannassey tyke hauls off and kicks Charles Bickford’s horse in the butt, HARD. “Wham!” That disciplined horse jumps a couple of inches but otherwise ignores the insult. I’d hope that’s the influence of Jessamyn West, as it seems a holdover of the comic Richard Eyer-vs-pet goose moments from Friendly Persuasion.
Wyler makes excellent use of his camera crane, swooping up over buildings to hold deep focus on riders appearing in the far background of dialogue scenes, etc. Just remember that for his epic Ben-Hur, Wyler didn’t have all that much to do with the giant action scenes with Roman galleys and racing chariots… he may have approved the plans but the second unit devil-dogs shot those scenes, which fairly closely replicate their corresponding sequences from the silent original. Wyler is much better blending menace and comedy, as when Julie & Jim swap gory stories at a crumbling ranch house, or when the cantankerous old Rufus cuffs his son Buck about the ears for behaving like such an idiot: “Did you even want me, Pa?” “I did before you were born.”
For all of its progressive posturing The Big Country is blindly retrograde in its disrespect for the Mexican-American ranch hand Ramón, played by Alfonso Bedoya as dim-witted comedy relief. I also wonder if one point of the Wyler-Peck confrontation was over McKay’s scenes trying to ride ‘Old Thunder,’ the killer horse trotted out to haze foolish outsiders. It seems a direct outgrowth of Gregory Peck’s impressive horse-taming scene in Duel in the Sun twelve years earlier. In that Selznick film, the horse-breaking stood in for Lewt McCandless’s taming of the hot-blooded Pearl Chavez. Here, the scene displays the superiority of Jim’s nonviolent attitude. Persistent patience tames a horse that the rugged Terrills could not.
Although a number of cowpokes bite the dust and tumble down some pretty rugged cliffs (kudos to the stuntmen, there) The Big Country concludes with a symbolic victory of diplomacy over aggression. The moral magician McKay never pulls a trigger in anger, yet several individuals that belittle his princely point of view end up plugged full of lead. Jim and Julie ride off to a happy future. Unfortunately, in that desolate outback, with all of the interesting neighbors now their graves, it looks as if their lonely future will be spent talking to those stinkin’ cattle. We only hope that Steve Leech recovers and marries Pat. As a true Man of the West, Leech would be an unbeatable heroic partner for McKay. Now that’s the movie we want to see.
As for the film’s avoidance of western gunplay clichés, I can’t complain — in the marvelous Joel McCrea oater Four Faces West not a single shot is fired, and the film is so good that the gun-smoke is not missed. But I’m afraid there will always be a place for the release of violence in movies. My personal favorite six-gun quick-draw is in an unlikely non-western, John Sayles’ 1987 Matewan, an enormously satisfying point-blank double-draw by David Strathairn. Why are Sayles’ vintage pictures not out on Blu-ray?
Everybody’s good in The Big Country, even if Charles Bickford has to play such a stiff and Carroll Baker such a dodo. Burl Ives earned a supporting Oscar; he makes the entire range war plot function. But the real acting honors go to Charlton Heston. He is spot-on in every line reading and character nuance and his character has a vital function in every dramatic conflict. Judging from his fine work with a number of top-grade directors, Heston really knew how to take direction.
The KL Studio Classics 60th Anniversary Blu-ray of The Big Country is a major improvement on the older Fox/MGM Blu-ray. Kino frequently transfers MGM films on its own, but this new remaster was performed in-house by MGM, and it’s a beauty. Older video presentations tended to render the desert landscapes as brown mush. In HD they recover their multi-colored beauty.
The Big Country wasn’t filmed in 65mm; it was Technirama. That’s 35mm film running sideways through a VistaVision camera, but with a lens that adds a slight anamorphic squeeze. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is correct for Technirama. The old Blu-ray appears to have gotten the squeeze wrong, when transferring from the Technirama interpositive film element. On the old disc, the image is slightly squashed, with everyone looking a little too fat. For this disc MGM redid everything, correcting the sizing issue. They then went the extra mile, eliminating flaws in the earlier transfer of the title sequence — re-timing the stylized sepia wash and eliminating an annoying flicker.
The sound mix on The Big Country was always monaural; it was never printed in 70mm for multi-channel audio. Jerome Moross’s music score is a thing of beauty; some think it the best western score ever. Composer Moross more or less adapted the same music for the later The Valley of Gwangi, of all things; Ray Harryhausen fans may expect to see an Allosaurus leap into the frame. The disc carries English subtitles. The one reason I can think of for retaining the old MGM Blu-ray are its language options — the 2011 disc had additional audio tracks and subs in Spanish and French.
The old extras are here: a good trailer (music-driven, naturally), a brief TV promo for ABC’s Sunday Night at the Movies, and a featurette called Fun in the Country that has the feel of a goofy educational short subject. We see Jean Simmons playing bridge, Burl Ives and Gregory Peck (‘The intellectuals of the company’) play chess, and a smiling Chuck Heston introduces Carroll Baker to a reluctant desert tortoise. That’s followed by a couple of shots showing the cowboy actors (Chuck Roberson, prominently) holding a tortoise race.
Kino adds a very good commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling, who references research from a lifetime studying westerns. The entire long-form documentary Directed by William Wyler is present, the one with a Wyler interview taken just a few days before his passing. Outtakes from that show include a section with a predictably hilarious Billy Wilder, about the way their names were confused. Other new interviews include Wyler’s daughter Catherine; a slightly older piece allows writer-director Larry Cohen to praise Chuck Connors. An original trailer shows that marketers sold Carroll Baker on her reputation as the notorious Baby Doll. The ‘TV spot’ is a network promo done from the early 1960s — I wish somebody could come forward with the original ABC promos for The Outer Limits in time for the second season disc compilation.
Sir Christopher and Catherine Wyler open our eyes to many interesting production stories. We learn that the movie was given United Artists’ biggest publicity push to date, perhaps because it had to ‘top’ Duel in the Sun? But it was not a road show release — it never had an intermission, even at 166 minutes. Frayling is based in London yet seems to have figured out the exact spots in Red Rock Canyon where filming took place. I’ve visited Red Rock Canyon a couple of times and have discovered that the site for the ‘dramatic ride’ where Charlton Heston catches up with Charles Bickford is right off of Highway 14 — the spot where the riders appear from behind the hill, is literally paved road.
We also learn that this was an unusually unhappy set — even Jean Simmons thought the experience horrible. The conditions do not seem to have dimmed her excellent performance. Conflicts between the co-producers Wyler and Peck elevated until they ended up not speaking to each other. This happened to a number of top directors that once had complete autonomy, who found themselves out-gunned by stars with producing clout. Frank Capra was all but pushed out of the business by first Frank Sinatra, and then Glenn Ford.
According to Frayling, director Wyler left the show early to go to Rome for pre-production on Ben Hur. The final confrontation in Blanco Canyon was partly directed by the supervising editor Robert Swink. Wyler later said that he wished that fifteen minutes could be pulled from the film. That’s an interesting thing to contemplate — would he have dropped a couple of scenes, or trimmed the picture all over? Frayling also tells the story about Wyler in Rome. While working on Ben Hur, he shot a last-minute Big Country pickup with Charlton Heston right in the middle of the sandy chariot race amphitheater. An Italian assistant director observing from the side was none other than Sergio Leone.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Big Country
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling, Directed by William Wyler – 60 Minute Documentary; Wyler Doc Outtakes with Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Billy Wilder; Interviews with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck, Tony Peck, Fraser Heston, Catherine Wyler. Fun in the Country Featurette; Larry Cohen on Chuck Connors; Trailer, TV Spot, Two Animated Image Galleries.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 6, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson