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The Big Country is one big and fun western with concurrent plot lines.
The first is the struggle between two implacable enemies, Charles
Bickford and Burl Ives. The second is a four sided romantic triangle
involving Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll
Baker with Chuck Connors trying to horn in.
William Wyler directed the almost three hour western with a sure hand and your interest does not wane for one minute in this film. Gregory Peck also was a co-producer on this film as well as the first billed. He had a hand in casting a lot of the film, specifically Burl Ives in his Academy Award winning performance as Rufus Hannessy.
It's the Terrills versus the Hannessys. Charles Bickford is the local Ponderosa owner Major Terrill. Presumably the title comes from the Civil War. Bickford does play Terrill with a military bearing. My guess is that he was a Yankee soldier.
The Hannessys would now be called white trash. They look like hillbilly folk who also came west for fame and fortune. They've also got a big spread in a place called Blanco Canyon. They hate the Yankee Major as much as he hates them.
Sitting between them is Jean Simmons who has inherited a modest piece of land that sits across a river that both outfits water their cattle on as per an agreement with her late grandfather. She doesn't work the land herself any more, she teaches school in town.
Simmons tries to keep above the feud. She is friends with Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford's daughter. She's been east and is bringing home a prospective bridegroom who is a former sea captain played by Gregory Peck. That doesn't sit well with Charlton Heston who is the Terrill foreman. He's got eyes on Baker himself and Chuck Connors who is Burl Ives eldest son has eyes for Simmons when he's not in the local bordello.
A lot of started and broken relationships and a few of the cast members being killed occurs in The Big Country. My favorite scene and line in the film is when Burl Ives gives some advice to Chuck Connors on how to woo and win Jean Simmons. His big advice is to show her how much you care by taking a bath occasionally.
Charlton Heston took a role that was fourth billed because he wanted the opportunity to work with William Wyler. That was one great career move because Wyler and he hit it off so well that Wyler signed him for the lead in his next film which turned out to be Ben-Hur. Heston in his memoirs, conservative as he became, says he also got along very well with Gregory Peck who he called a "thinking man's liberal."
Peck and Wyler had worked together previously on Roman Holiday and had done good work there and also hit it off. However with Peck as a co-producer as well as star they had some clashes on the set. One notable one involved Peck wanting to retake the carriage scene where the Hannessy brothers attack Peck and Baker on the way to the Bickford ranch. Peck wasn't satisfied and wanted a retake. Wyler who was legendary for doing scenes dozens of times until he got what he wanted refused. Later when shown the finished film, Wyler had edited out and around what Peck didn't like and it came out OK. They remained friends, but never worked together again.
Simmons as the independent minded school teacher and Baker as the spoiled daddy's little girl acquit themselves well in their roles. Baker is disappointed in Peck not seeing him as her ideal western man and Simmons upbraids her with the quote I put in the review title.
This is also the final film of Alfonso Bedoya who never did get a role in an American film as good as the one he had as Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Still this is a fine farewell performance to a very colorful and talented player.
When he's on the screen Burl Ives dominates and fills it and not just physically either. Rufus Hannessy may not be to the manor born, but he has his own sense of integrity and fair play. All that Burl Ives captured in Rufus and The Big Country is worth watching just for him alone.
And that Jerome Moross score; simply one of the best ever done in the history of film.
I've read all of the comments about Wyler's "The Big Country". I don't even
remember the first time I saw this movie but I have never tired of watching
it. William Wyler went to the vault and pulled out the often used theme,
showdown on main street at high noon" genre that many directors had tired of
and felt was the kiss of death to western movies of the day and he pulled it
off in grand fashion. Why this movie has never received it's just due has
mystified me for years. Maybe the late '50's became the time of the "brat
pak" movie genre, ("Rebel Without A Cause"), but the performances in this
movie are classic. Jean Simmons was absolutely intriguing. As a man watching
this movie, I soon realized what Mr. Peck would begin to see in this woman
as the movie progressed. Just that little glimpse from Ms. Simmons as she
measured up the man she would soon fall in love with had more sexual power
than most flicks today that try to thrive on the sexual theme to sell
This is not just a western. It is pure greatness from William Wyler and a cast that added strength to the film. Burl Ives and Charles Bickford played their respective roles with the intenseness and professionalism of a classic Shakespearean play and Charlton Heston was perfect as the antagonist to Gregory Peck. This film has no weakness and has gotten better with time.
As a rule, I don't like westerns. This isn't because I'm a city slicker
(though now, I do live in a city). I grew up in rural Eastern Oregon
where "real" cowboys still herd their cattle through the center of town
in John Day, Oregon. My stepfather owned a 10,170 acre cattle ranch.
After being raised among "real" cowboys, the Hollywood versions tend to
leave me flat. The Big Country was an exception.
Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) introduced us to a different kind of man, far different than most stereotypical men of the Wild West. If I were to compare McKay's character to any other film character, it would be Ghandi. He's a man who doesn't feel obliged to seek the approval of others ... a man who believes that violence doesn't need to be used to solve problems. His secret ride of Old Thunder, making Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya) swear to keep quiet regardless of the outcome, set the tone for McKay's character. His later secret fight with Steve Leech (Charleton Heston), making him swear to keep quiet regardless of the outcome, cemented that tone. This was a REAL man whose opinion of himself was not dependent upon anyone else's opinion ... in stark contrast to anyone else in the film outside of Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). As Ramon said, "Such a man is very rare."
Outside of McKay, my #2 favorite character in the film was Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). I found nothing about him distasteful considering he was a character whose back was against the wall ... whose livelihood was threatened. The things he did make perfect sense in such a situation. His only flaw was his obvious poor parenthood. He really blew it with Buck (Chuck Connors) and Buck's siblings were of the same ilk.
I'm so glad that MGM/UA finally released the widescreen version in 2001. This is a film that deserves such a presence. It may not be playing in theaters anymore but seeing it in any other display size takes so much away from it. I've seen the pan/scan version before and will never go back.
One note. The full listing of writing credits for the film adaptation is lacking. "Ambush In Blanco Canyon," originally serialized in a magazine, was later novelized into "The Big Country" by Donald Hamilton ... and Hamilton also worked on the adaptation as well as Leon Uris ("Topaz," "Exodus," "Gunfight At the OK Corral," etc.).
This epic film was not lacking for anything. It had the best writers, the best actors, the best musical score, and the best scenery of any other film of its time ... western or otherwise. And the film remains one of my favorite films of all time.
As several characters state in the film, "This is a big country" and THIS is a BIG MOVIE. It screams out for widescreen viewing. Many of the characters are largely and broadly drawn with big strokes (stubborn Peck, fiery Baker, resentful Heston, righteous Simmons, imperious Bickford, cantankerous Ives and slithering Connors) yet they all are dwarfed by the huge landscape. Tall men, horses, trees and houses are all presented as so many ants on an ant hill in many of the images. The film has a compelling story and intriguing interpersonal relationships and rivalries which are all enhanced by this larger than life approach. The landscape is sometimes awe-inspiring, notably in the Blanco Canyon scenes near the end of the film. Peck is appropriately straight-laced and uncomfortable in this rough & tumble setting, lovely Simmons is a likable heroine and Baker is an effective daddy's girl with misplaced affections. Connors acquits himself very nicely as a thoroughly detestable punk. Heston comes off extremely strong in this film. He's completely at home and was probably never more handsome (check out the scene in which he's roused from his bed by Peck!) He makes the most out of this secondary role. Bickford and Oscar-winning Ives make a great pair of adversaries...almost makes one wish for a prequel to see what got these two so riled up (but today's filmmakers couldn't be counted upon to do it in a tasteful, classy way.) Memorable scenes include the taunting of Peck by Connors and his brothers, Ives grand entrance into Bickford's house and an almost legendary fight scene between Heston and Peck. All of the above are raised to an even higher plane of excellence by what must be one of the greatest musical scores in film history (western or otherwise.) Jerome Moross composed several themes (the opening title is the best known) which put this film into a whole new category of enjoyment. The score stands alone as a beautiful listening experience and paired with the images in this film, it is amazing. It occasionally seems intrusive, yet knows when to keep quiet as well. The Oscar that year went to Tiompkin's "Old Man and the Sea", but it seems astonishing that anything could have bested this score. The film's only real flaw is slight overlength, but nothing really stands out as aching to be cut! Maybe just bits and pieces....but, really, the story just takes it's time and builds to some stirring moments.
When Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) stepped off the stagecoach in the open
range of the West, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) was already his
excellent rival and adversary...
Steve - Major Terrill's strong right arm - was in love with the beautiful Pat (Carroll Baker) daughter of his boss, who intends to marry the innocent handsome Captain...
Soon than expected, McKay discovered a bitter blood feud between the Terrills, owner of a huge ranch, and the Hannasseys, simple mountain men..
Extreme hatred united the two families, the two cattlemen Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives).
Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) was a strategic factor in the conflict... She was the key to supply water... Both, Terrill and Hannassey wanted her part of land to have their cattle watered, but she always said 'no' to either... Why not to say 'yes' now to Jim McKay! Julie was touched by his honesty, a quality she admired in a man...
Jim, a perfect gentleman - suffering humiliation since his arrival to the big country - grew to unlike Pat's ideas and manners which were in a primitive set of values... He became aware of Julie as a sensitive woman, an understanding human being with great heart...
When Julie is kidnapped by the Hannassey, McKay goes to meet Rifus... He wins esteem and consideration from the old man but fails to refrain a hostile confrontation between the two selfish, inflexible old barons...
"The Big Country" is distinguished by its magnificent landscapes... The high, wide and impressive buggy ride spread out a lavish, sumptuous scale of the State of Texas as never has been carried to the silver screen..
The film is about land and its influence and power over people... A story that can occur everyday in every country, zone and family... The love, the hatred, the war for land, for power, for water rights... always for an asset!
Gregory Peck is outstanding as the calm anti-traditional hero, balancing a deed of bravery, strength and endurance...
Jean Simmons is a big leading lady at that time, big enough to the 'Big Country.'
Carroll Baker, famous as the thumb-sucking child-wife in "Baby Doll," is Charles Bickford's willful daughter, acting according to his law and dictate...
Charlton Heston confirms a favorable impression by giving an excellent account as the grinning, menacing rival in love with the land and with McKay's attractive fiancée...
Burl Ives - Winner of the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor in the film - is impeccably cast as the gray-haired patriarch of a shameful, indecent, discourteous clan...
Charles Bickford (1891-1967) could play as easily the sincere man of virtue ("Duel in the Sun") as the dishonest villain... His generous character and his stubborn face fitted him perfectly to such roles as the proud misguided patriarch led by false and mistaken ideas in the range against Burl Ives...
Chuck Connors (1921-92) is always remembered for his success on T.V. notably in "The Rifleman" series (58-63). Here he plays the heavy coward, the rude and vulgar, the hypocrite impolite noisy disorderly son...
Directed by William Wyler, "The Big Country" is a spectacular Western featuring a brilliant cast at top shape...
If you like big action, big fights, big love, don't miss it!
The Big Country was passed over by the professional critics as being empty, ernest, and not enough sweep to be called a true epic. Well, I remember seeing The Big Country and was properly swept off my feet by the grand scale of the Big Country, the death feud between Burl Ives and Charles Bickford, the shaky and doomed romance between Gregory Peck and the spoiled Carroll Baker and the quiet understanding between Peck and the lovely Jean Simmons, but most of all, the thing that propelled me to see The Big Country over and over was the magnificant score by Jerome Moross. Sure, I could site many scores that have aided films to glory, Max Steiner for The Letter, Maurice Jarre for Lawrence of Arabia, Miklos Roza for an excellent score for a weak epic Land of the Pharaohs, and Hans Zimmer for an excellent score for a great epic Gladiator but I still say that for a western you can't get any better than the magnificant score for The Big Country. The sweep and majesty and the quiet moments of Jerome Moross's music sets the tone for this truly underated movie. United Artist released the music on LP and I wore mine out along with my neighbors complaints, I now own an excellent CD produced by SILVA SCREEN which I can't wear out. All in all see The Big Country on your big screen in Widescreen and give yourself a real treat. Who needs Giant?
There are many things to enjoy in 'The Big Country'. The landscape itself is
a character that seems overwhelming. There are many panoramic shots of it,
sweeping out to a misty horizon. All beautifully photographed. This big
country seems to glow and the film gets an appropriate music score, sweeping
and colourful. It must be one of the most perfect film scores
In this breathtaking landscape the story of the characters unfold with their prides, jealousies, fears, loves, pretensions, hopes, disappointments. The actors are first rate and convey lots of feeling not just in dialogue but in looks. It is worth seeing more than once to catch the emotional nuances. This is a film with space in lots of senses and it gives the cast time to flesh out their characters. In all the splendid acting I have a particular admiration for Chuck Connors in a performance of a lifetime. His Buck Hennassey is a coward and a bully yet you can't help feeling sorry for him in the end.
There is also the political undertones, the oft quoted Cold War parallels, embodied in the confrontation between Bickford and Ives of mutually assured destruction, that was an ever present issue in the late fifties. Bickford and Ives have narrow self interested vision that portends destruction, while the Peck character has a wider view of co-operation and fairness. (In an illuminating exchange at the engagement party a guest asks Peck if he has seen anything bigger than the 'big country' and Peck replies to the guest's astonishment that he has, a couple of oceans!) It is the outsider who sees clearest.
William Wyler was a great director and made a great film to be enjoyed on many levels. It is an aural and visual treat but the film also has believable characters performed by a superior cast. And I can't stop humming that theme tune....
There's just not one thing wrong with this movie. The casting is perfect, as is the direction, cinematography, script, and music. The score by Jerome Moross is perfection, and my personal favorite of all the great western movie scores. All the actors/actresses are a perfect fit for their roles, and the male cast of Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Charles Bickford, Burl Ives, and Chuck Connors (who shines as the thoroughly bad Buck Hannassey) is ensemble acting at it's best. Carol Baker and Jean Simmons are luminous, compelling, and strangely powerful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The strength of this movie is its great cast, an excellent script and Jerome
Moross' memorable score. Critics bombed it when it was released, but
moviegoers loved it. I did, too.
"It's a big country", one of the characters in the movie says. This is obvious in the opening credits as a stagecoach crosses the treeless plain carrying Gregory Peck, who plays Jim McKay, to a meeting with his fiance (played by Carol Baker) in San Rafael. The fist fight with the foreman of Ladder Ranch, played by Charlton Heston, is original in its staging. There have been much better fight scenes. "Pittsburgh" and "North to Alaska" come to mind. This fight scene is memorable because the camera emphasizes the vastness of the country by showing the fight from long range. It works.
The emphasis in this film is on the complex personal relationships between the characters. Peck and Baker are engaged to be married, but their relationship seems doomed from the start. In the opening scenes they are harassed by the Hannassey's, mortal enemies of the Terrell's. Peck and Baker are fundamentally incompatible. He doesn't measure up to her father (played by Charles Bickford), and she is upset that he doesn't ride Old Thunder or accept Steve Leach's challenge. McKay does both, but he does these things on his own terms. He is not a show off. He may be a little unsure of himself, but he does not give up easily. His efforts to ride Old Thunder demonstrate this. He is also modest. "I had a little trouble with a horse", he later tells Julie Maragon in a classic understatement. Pat Terrell is disappointed in her fiance and dumps him. Later, when she tries to make peace, McKay rejects her overtures. "It goes much deeper than that", he tells her, referring to her comment that the estrangement was a simple misunderstanding. In a pique she compares him unfavorably to her father and walks out of his life. McKay's courage shows at the end when he rides into Blanco Canyon to rescue Julie Maragon (played by Jean Simmons). Why did he do it? He did it for love. He loves Julie Maragon.
The relationship between Rufus Hannassey (played by Burl Ives) and Henry Terrell sets the tone for the movie. Terrell is a "gentleman" living in a mansion. The Hannassey clan lives in rough shacks in Blanco Canyon. Rufus is not as uncultured as the Terrell's make him out. Indeed, he appreciates the fine dueling pistols he finds in McKay's saddlebags. "Gentlemen's weapons", he derisively tells his definitely uncouth son (played by Chuck Connors). In one scene Rufus publicly questions Henry Terrell's qualifications as a gentleman. Gentlemen or not the two old men hate each other. The movie never tells you how it started. Perhaps no one remembers. Perhaps it is simple economics. Both the Terrells and the Hannasseys covet the Big Muddy, Julie Maragon's ranch. Water is more than life in the West. In one scene Terrell's cowboys shoot holes in the water tower at Rufus' ranch. Steve Leach questions the ethics of this. "Do you really want this Major?", he asks. "Let the boys have their fun," he replies. Later, Rufus returns the favor by barging uninvited into Terrell's party. It is not unexpected that they kill each other at the end.
The relationship between McKay and Steve Leach begins on a bad note. Leach seems to have a romantic interest in McKay's fiance. He offers a fight, which McKay refuses. Later, when they do fight, the relationship seems to change. "You take a long time to say good by," he tells McKay. "I'm just about finished", McKay replies. It is apparent at the end that Leach respects McKay's courage.
The script is refreshingly original. The familiar dialogue from other Westerns is missing here. "This is a frosty Friday", Rufus says at one point. "Teach your mother to suck eggs", he suggests to his McKay at another point. If anything, there may be too much dialogue in this film. A little more action might have helped.
The action is also different from your typical Western. The big screen approach to the fist fight is a good example. The long-expected gun fight between Steve Leach and Buck Hannassey never happens. Instead Hannassey and McKay face off with dueling pistols. McKay wins, because Hannassey shows his coward's colors. He grabs a six gun from one of the cow hands and tries to kill McKay. It is Rufus who shoots his son.
Jerome Moross' music is fantastic. My favorite cue is "The Welcoming", which underscores the scene in which Buck Hannassey and three ranch hands harass McKay and his fiance. Variations of the musical themes in this film appear in the "Jayhawkers" and "The Proud Rebel". The title tune was recently reprised in "Varsity Blues".
This movie is best watched on the big screen. Unfortunately, I don't believe there is a wide screen version of this film available on video. Hopefully, that omission will soon be corrected. However, the great script and wonderful characterizations can be enjoyed on the small screen, too.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilers (as there will always be people watching it for the first
The word gentleman has probably been terribly abused in all these years. For an icon of a true gentleman, absolutely no one can surpass Gregory Peck, on and off screen. In The Big Country, Peck's performance best portrayed what a gentleman is.
Before going into this theme, let me make one interesting diversion, in observing that movie makers around that time were rather fond of big casts, led by undisputed heavyweights and supported by some who were lesser in stature but still stars in their own right. Without even thinking hard, I can quote a few examples. Obviously The Big Country (1958) is one, with Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives and Charles Bickford. Even more impressive is Spartacus (1960), with Kirk Douglas, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons (again), Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin and Tony Curtis. Another is Judgement at Nuremberg (1961): Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland and Montgomery Cliff. I used to try to line up the roster, weighting one against another in a hopeless quest of deciding which one has the final edge. Such pursuit invariably ended up in my throwing up my arms in despair.
So much for side tracking. The essence of Big Country is in its hero James McKay, who is one notch above Will Kane in High Noon, a rather passive `hero' forced into heroism by circumstances. McKay is all positive, never wavering ever so slightly in his belief. Neither provocation nor insult can force him into violence. While he steadfastly resists the temptation of being a flashy, show-off type of `hero', he is the farthest away from being a dodger. He takes up every challenge that Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) scorns him for dodging. It's just that he does not need to prove himself to her, or to anybody, for that matter. It takes a real woman, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), to recognise a real man.
The most remarkable (and daring) thing about Big Country is the view it takes about fast draws, which is the most important factor (if not the only factor) behind every single successful western. Big Country dares to treat it as utterly worthless, or even more, as a sign of cowardice. In the final showdown, adversary Buck Hannassey the fast draw is portrayed as a coward at heart when his advantage is taken away, and eventually shot down by his own father in scorn when he tried to shoot McKay in the back.
Some say that Big Country is not even a western and I do not disagree. To me, it's enjoying and admiring the performance of two of the greatest stars that ever graced the screen, Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons.
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