Allow me to say this right up front, 1958’s “The Big Country” is a fantastic movie. I hadn’t seen it before, and within 10 minutes I was hooked. The cinematography is brilliant, as is the acting and direction. Perhaps the biggest treat of all is that the director, William Wyler, treated the audience with respect, allowing us to figure things out for ourselves. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there is a fight scene that is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in a Western, measured by what I would imagine a real fight would be like.
I recently published a book called “52 Weeks • 52 Western Movies,” where I, along with a number of contributors, highlight some of our favorite Westerns. One of those contributors was Steve Hockensmith, who reviewed — and introduced me too — “The Big Country.” He did such a great job, I just did a copy and paste, and what follows is all Steve.
When sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) comes to Texas to join his fiancée, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), he finds himself in the middle of a long-running feud between her cattle baron father — known as The Major (Charles Bickford) — and the seedy Hannassey clan. Because he won’t be badgered into fights himself, McKay is dismissed as a dandified weakling by most of the Texans, especially the Terrills’ sulky ranch foreman Steve (Charlton Heston). However, two of the locals — friendly Mexican-American ranch hand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya) and schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) — see that McKay’s cowardice is actually courage. He doesn’t avoid trouble out of fear, but because of his unbending commitment to discretion, dignity and fairness.
When the Hannassey family’s slimy patriarch Rufus (Burl Ives) tries to force Julie to marry his son (Chuck Connors) to further his schemes against the Terrills, The Major sees a chance to wipe out his enemies once and for all. Along with Steve and an army of Terrill hands, The Major rides to the Hannasseys’ stronghold, Blanco Canyon, ready for all-out war. However, McKay trumps them by slipping into the canyon ahead of them intent on rescuing Julie and ending the bloodshed. In the end, the characters face off against each other in a series of one-on-one battles for the fate of Blanco Canyon and the surrounding grassland — the big country.
When Peck discovered a serialized Saturday Evening Post story called “Ambush at Blanco Canyon,” he formed a production company to turn it into a film. Peck brought in director William Wyler, but Wyler’s perfectionism led to a rocky, rancorous production. The film wrapped a month behind schedule and more than $1 million over budget. Though “The Big Country” did well at the box office, it wasn’t the smash Peck had hoped for. He is quoted as saying, “The exhibitors made money, the grips made money. Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.” Two other people got something Peck didn’t for “The Big Country” — Academy Award nominations. Composer Jerome Moross was a finalist for his stirring score, and Ives won an Oscar for his turn as the bitter, domineering Rufus.
“The Big Country” is a grand, rousing, romantic Western, which also happens to be a pointed critique of the genre. The hero finds himself surrounded by people who seem to love guns and violence, and who look with knee-jerk contempt on anyone who doesn’t. Though the beauty and grandeur of “The Big Country” is captured in glorious widescreen Technirama, the film uses the huge canvas to paint human conflicts as pitifully small rather than mythic. But “The Big Country” also draws on the best of the genre, mixing stunning vistas, vivid characters and life-and-death stakes with a touch of humor.