The Big Country (1958)


The opening theme of The Big Country told me this was a movie I should have known about long ago. I am a fan of Yes and, on their second album Time and a Word, they cover Ritchie Havens's "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed".  They had decided to go with an orchestra to accompany them (and to drown out guitarist Peter Banks, who was being pushed out of the band at the time), and one of the big pieces was for this opening song.  Surprisingly I have never seen it mentioned that the orchestral piece was the opening title theme from The Big Country and, even without the Hammond organ thundering along at the beginning, I recognized it right off.  I kept expecting Chris Squire's bass part to follow.

Jerome Moross's theme music almost didn't make it into the movie since director William Wyler didn't like it.  Test audiences did, so it stayed, and won an Oscar.  It is hard to imagine this film with anything else, as Maross's music not only plays on the usual western folk motifs as well as a tradition of western movie theme songs, but the notes and huge major chords represent wide open spaces and the optimism of a country still expanding, and of the life one could make if they worked hard and and respected the land.  It's a piece of music that is so opposite of many of the movie's core themes that it had to stay as, with the countryside itself, the human players would be the ones that sour the romance.

James McKay (Gregory Peck) is a former ship captain and the owner of a major shipping company.  After meeting and falling in love with Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker) he moves out west to marry her and put down roots.  From the beginning his Eastern ways become a source of ridicule, both from Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman at Pat's father's ranch, and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Conners), the eldest son of rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), the sworn enemy of Pat's father Maj. Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford).  The two families have a running feud over land and water rights, at the heart being a property called the Big Muddy, owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local school teacher. Her land has the region's only major river flowing through it, and her late father let both families utilize it.  

Another thing that chafes the Terrills is McKay's refusal to prove himself, either with his fists or with a gun, in the way they have become accustomed.  This eventually creates a rift between Pat and James, but some of the locals begin to give him some grudging respect when they find out he is not a coward, but rather just doesn't like showing off or proving himself to others.  As he grows closer to Julie he also comes up with a solution that just might end the feud between the ranchers once and for all. 

Both Wyler and Peck, along with the laundry list of script writers, had input into the movie.  The script was not finished when the movie began filming and often went through daily rewrites to accommodate both continuity and the filming schedules of a good part of its cast who were also working on other films at the time.  The movie was based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, but Wyler meant for his film to be an allegory to the Cold War, which he believed boiled down to two old men dragging everyone along with them in their feud.  Despite this President Dwight Eisenhower hosted multiple showings of the movie and declared it was the best that he had seen to that point and, judging by some of his departing advice to to John F. Kennedy when the latter took office, he seemed to have largely got the point. 

Although there was plenty of bickering and tension behind the scenes while making The Big Country there was no way that, with the cast it has, that it would come out as a bad film.  Everyone is in top form, and indeed were largely at the pinnacle of their careers, when this was made.  It is also interesting to find many of them playing against type.  Both Chuck Conners and Charlton Heston play villains in this, while both actors were known largely for playing heroic lead roles.  Meanwhile, Burl Ives plays the tough leader of the Hannassey clan, far from the grandfatherly snowman or the guy who sings "Holly Jolly Christmas".  

The other thing I like is that there is a major change in attitude toward a man who holds back when he knows he can fight.  A few years before this movie John Ford hauled John Wayne over to Ireland to make The Quiet Man, in which some of the situations were similar.  Wayne played a boxer who had accidentally killed a man in the ring and thus was reluctant to fight his wife's brother for her dowry, fearing the same would happen.  In that case it is shown as an act of respect toward his wife while, this time around, it is proven to be the final breaking point in a relationship.  When there are fights in this McKay generally picks the place and time, and Wyler films it from a distance.  It's both a way of taking advantage of the wonderful scenery, but also letting professional stuntmen do it so it doesn't look as cheesy or get his actors hurt.  

To that point Wyler takes every advantage to use the big screen and the actual big country to his advantage, from the opening scenes of the stagecoach traveling to San Rafael to Terrill's riders making their way through the canyon that leads to the Hannassey homestead.  Everything is framed to make the simple conflicts between the main characters seem as insignificant as possible against the backdrop of the world they have come to inhabit.  

The Big Country deserves to be rediscovered.  As much of a major movie event as it was in 1958 it has largely been forgotten for the more typical western tales of gunfighters and outlaws and such.  In many ways it feels more like the revisionist westerns of the 1990s than it does a product of its own time and it still carries a message of the uselessness of escalating revenge.  It's a message that definitely needs to be heard in today's political climate as well.

The Big Country (1958)
Time: 166 minutes
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Charles Bickford, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker
Director: William Wyler 

 

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