The Big Country


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The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

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I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about – the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone – his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

21 thoughts on “The Big Country

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  2. Colin, I have just seen this film in the last few days and remembered you had reviewed it, so am dipping into your archives again. I hadn’t thought about the Cold War aspect, but can see it now – but, as you say, there is a lot more to it. I like the way you discuss the various efforts to force Peck to prove himself, and how he refuses to do so – but proves himself to the cinema audience all the same, when the other characters aren’t looking. I do find the film a bit soapy at times, but the grandeur of the landscape and the smallness of the human figures in it work against that feeling. Anyway, liked your review a lot and I’m glad to have seen this film at last.

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    • Thanks Judy. I’m glad you saw the movie and liked it. I know what you mean about the soapy aspect, but I feel it works as a movie on so many levels that I can overlook that. I’ve seen it quite a few times now, and I have to say it continues to rise in my estimation.
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to dig out my review of this one and comment on it too.

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  3. Pingback: Reprise: It’s the Little Things in Wyler’s The Big Country | It Rains… You Get Wet

  4. What a fine review of one of my favorite westerns. A perfect cast as you say.Ives and Bickford so powerful as the adversaries. They almost overshadow Peck and Heston.
    It was a relatively supporting role for Heston and I am a bit surprised he would take that role at
    that time in his career.

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    • Thanks. The film is a great piece of work, so rich in theme and powerfully acted by pretty much everybody. I think the fact that all of the cast members get their moment and a chance to shine helps a lot.

      I agree it seems a little odd for Heston to take on this role at that time. That said, he’s excellent and it must have helped persuade Wyler to give him the lead in Ben Hur, if he hadn’t already decided that is.

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  7. Thank you for your paean to this grand movie which is greatly underappreciated by the critics. I loved it when I saw it when I was 9 years old and I have never lost my enthusiasm for it. There are so many marvelous scenes in it. I love the horsemanship of the Hannassey cowhands when they first playfully taunt Jim McKay and Pat Terrill in their buckboard. The thing is, while Pat is fuming at them, McKay can’t help cracking a smile at their antics while he’s trying to slow down his own horses. It’s a brilliant scene thanks to Peck’s acting and Wyler’s direction. The mild harassment only turns ugly when Terrill reaches for her rifle.

    During one of my viewings of TBC, I mentioned to my wife that Pat Terrill (Carol Baker) looked like her father in the way she carried herself in her macho riding outfit. Her feminine self is masked. I think Wyler intentionally presents Pat this way. Her excessive identification with her father prevents her from unconditionally loving McKay.

    The movie score is magnificent. I once heard a PBS critic call it “glorious” – that seems to me to be the aptest description of what is one of the greatest soundtracks in film history. I have a CD of the entire soundtrack (not the original, but very faithful to it). On its own, it’s an outstanding piece of music.

    By the way, Buck Hannassey was Chuck Connors’ best performance in film or TV. Connors’ contribution to TBC was very significant. Buck and Pat are both wounded children with dominating fathers. Buck couldn’t be the son Rufus wanted (“Did you want me, Pa? / “Before you were born I did”.) In marrying McKay, Pat couldn’t provide the Major with the son he wanted. (One wonders if the Major always regretted that Pat wasn’t his male heir). Because of Pat’s hard-heartedness and privilege, I find myself more sympathetic to Buck. You’re right — TBC is so much more than a Cold War allegory.

    In sum, “The Big Country” is simply “glorious”!

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    • As The Big Country just came up in the Duel in the Sun discussion, I had to come over here to read it. Must have missed it before. Great review of one of my favorite Westerns. I have to say I see a few things differently somehow though.

      Peck’s character McKay is usually held up as the embodiment of non-violence, the man who doesn’t let himself be goaded into stupid fights just to prove himself to others. I would agree in general, nobody should let himself be forced into senseless brawls by a bunch of bullies just for their amusement. Especially when one knows, as McKay does, that he’s perfectly capable of defending himself.

      The overarching question in the move is though, as it is so often, is violence futile? It’s something McKay, and I assume director Wyler, wants us to believe. But even a cursory look at history shows us that this belief is really nothing but a lovely pipe dream. Nice in concept, rarely ever doable in reality (On a sidetone, over at Laura’s site, there was a good discussion about this movie a while ago.) There are times, many times, when only violence – or a good use of force – will do and backing down gets you nothing. But history is a discussion for another day.

      But all this droning on finally brings me to the point I actually want to make.
      Frank, you talk about the Hannasseys playfully taunting McKay and Pat. “The mild harassment only turns ugly when Terrill reaches for her rifle.” No, just no.
      The West was extremely rough country, with the people who lived there being equally rough, to say the least. Pat had grown up around the Hannasseys, she knows what they are. We later find out that Buck is more than just a very unsavory character.
      The Frontier was a place where nobody should ride out alone without a gun and use it if necessary, not even a woman. Pat was right to do what she did and I can’t believe McKay let himself be humiliated by the Hannasseys and endangered the safety of his fiancee!

      I’m quite a fan of the movie, but Peck’s character mostly got on my nerves because of sheer smugness and inability to see another point of view.

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      • I respectfully disagree, Margot. I don’t think grabbing the rifle was a prudent thing to do for Pat Terrill to do.** Peck sees the incident as almost humorous. I think it’s clear that while there are two sides to the conflict between the families, I believe that Wyler and the screenwriters lay the preponderance of the blame on the Terrills. And that has been my takeaway since I was nine years old. The Terrills evince a contempt for the Hannassey’s, treating them like trash. There’s definitely a class issue fueling the tension. While Rufus is a crude man, he is presented as a man of honor while the Major is a man of intransigent hatred. And Pat Terrill is shallow, immature, petulant, and disloyal to her fiance. Now, if Julie Maragon had a gun when Buck assaulted her, she by all means should have shot him. I am not at all like Jim McKay but I respect the way the character was written and played by Peck.

        Peck proves his mettle riding Old Thunder, fighting Steve Leech when no one is looking, and facing down Buck Hannassey in a duel. I think it is the Terrills who are the ones who are incapable of seeing others’ points of view.

        Even for movies that we all love, we’re going to have different responses to what’s being played out. That, I think, can make the discussions more lively and interesting. By the way, I love your blog — have you written anything lately?

        ** And remember Old Man Clanton’s dictum — “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.”

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        • Just to add my own musings here to this dicussion and the movie’s approach to violence. I think the film is certainly offering a critique of mindless and instinctive violence, something which may well have been influenced by Wyler’s wartime experiences. I maintain the movie is most concerned with defining masculinity and the importance of feeling confidence in oneself and being true to oneself as opposed to grandstanding in public. Violence is portrayed as something that ought to be used only as a last resort, and even then not necessarily providing anything more than a short-term solution to a problem. Again, Wyler, having seen the horror of violence at first hand, would have been acutely aware of this. Ultimately, I think the overriding message of it all is that the first requirement is to come to terms with our own nature, to settle on our own capabilities and strengths, and then use the confidence and inner peace that grows from this to effect something positive in our wider interactions.
          Surey it’s the mark of a great film when it can be enjoyed and celebrated by a range of people who also approach it, and respond to it, in a variety of ways.

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          • Colin, I’d say you’re right about the movie “offering a critique of mindless and instinctive violence”. However, if Wyler’s wartime experiences should have taught him anything, it is that not every conflict can be laid to rest by talking.

            As for Peck’s character, I can admire that he wants to go his own way and doesn’t want to be defined by others. But – unless I remember it wrong, I should rewatch the movie again – he so often simply refuses to explain himself to Pat. She is very young and has grown up in a harsh environment where presumably every man has to prove himself constantly, lest he’s quickly pushed aside by another man.

            Julie of course instinctively understands him. Again, how did Pat and McKay get together in the first place? I don’t think any of them is wrong, they’re just to people who are not compatible.

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            • I guess I respond well to certain aspects of the movie as a result of my own experience of growing up in a society torn apart by some appalling violence. I suppose I’ve come to the conclusion that, ultimately, accommodations have to be reached and compromises made as not only is talk preferable, but in the final analysis it is the only way to address the divisions that are at the root of all conflict.

              You make a good point on the essential incompatibility of Pat and McKay. I imagine it was one of those relationships that bloomed quickly under favorable if misleading circumstances, one where simple attraction, and perhaps limited social contact, led to a quick engagement.

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        • Thanks for the kind words about my blog. I haven’t written anything lately. Somehow I have a hard time to get my act back together, writing-wise. I find writing long reviews difficult. I hope I’ll get back soon.

          I still can’t see anything humorous about that scene. It could have easily and quickly got badly out of hand. I still find McKay’s reaction utterly puzzling. It’s nothing I can stand behind.
          Pat is an interesting character. I can only partly agree that she is “shallow, immature, petulant, and disloyal to her fiancé”. There’s no doubt that she is young and immature and has some growing up to do. The question for me is really, why did she get engaged to McKay in the first place? They really don’t have much in common. It’s quite clear from the beginning that Leech is the right man for her. He would be my choice too. All in all I have a lot of sympathy for Pat.

          Incidentally, you’re absolutely right about the Hannasseys. It’s really Buck who is the problem. (It’s a while since I’ve seen the movie.)

          Having different responses to a movie is really the mark of a good one. Nothing is cut and dry.

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  8. THE BIG COUNTRY was on tv all the time when I was a kid. The only problem was it had a diff runtime depending on the time of day. This was not unusual back then (1960s). The only time they showed the entire film was on the late show on Saturdays. This was at Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia. Dawson Creek is Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway.
    Gord

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