The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya (1958; Dir: William Wyler)
The Big Country is a self-consciously big movie, an epic sprawling family saga with a big, top-flight cast full of alpha males and a long running time, at 165 minutes. William Wyler had inherited Cecil B. Demille’s spot as the master of the large-scale film, and this one was between The Friendly Persuasion (a Civil War movie, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite film) and the even more epic Ben-Hur. Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons were at the peaks of their careers. At the time of its release, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was known to relax by reading pulp western novels) gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made. My number one favorite film.”
Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the scion of a family with a seafaring empire and has himself been a successful sea captain. His father was given to dueling, and was killed in a final duel ten years previously, leaving McKay with a distaste for meaningless violence. He has met young Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) in Baltimore, where she has been in school, and they became engaged. He has come to the Terrill estate in Texas for the marriage. So a familiar western plot emerges: the easterner comes west, and the tenderfoot is educated in the ways of the west. But in this case, the easterner is already competent in the world of men and does not automatically buy in to the supposed code of the west.
In town, Jim is introduced to Pat’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolmarm, granddaughter of one of the first ranchers in the area (now deceased), and owner of a neglected ranch with the best water source in the area, the Big Muddy. Heading for the Terrill Ranch, McKay is hoorahed, roped and dragged by drunk cowboys led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors, clearly playing a bad guy). When McKay is rescued by Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Pat is deeply humiliated that McKay didn’t stand up to the Hannasseys. McKay has found himself in the middle of a long-term feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the patriarch of the lower-class Hannasseys, Rufus (Burl Ives), both of whom want the water of the Big Muddy.
Leech is the closest thing Terrill has as a son, and he clearly doesn’t think McKay is worthy of the Terrill daughter. In one of the traditional tropes of a western like this, Leech has the cowboys saddle up Old Thunder, a beautiful but apparently unridable appaloosa, for the tenderfoot, but McKay declines the set-up. Major Terrill leads a group of twenty of his riders in shooting up the Hannassey place in Blanco Canyon and beating up three of the riders involved in the McKay incident while Buck hides in a wagon. While everybody is gone, McKay does in fact ride Old Thunder with only vaquero Ramon Guiteras (Alfonso Bedoya) to see.
At a Terrill party to celebrate the engagement of McKay and Patricia, Rufus Hannassey invades the festivities to issue a challenge to the Major. McKay takes off on a multi-day ride around the country, and everybody assumes he is lost in the vastness of the ranch and its surroundings. In fact, he can navigate fine with the help of his compass, and he encounters Julie again at her ranch. She says she’d like to get rid of it, and McKay buys it from her, adding the promise that both Terrills and Hannasseys can use the water of the Big Muddy.
Terrill riders led by Leech finally encounter McKay, and tempers are at the boiling point. McKay declines to fight Leech, and again Pat is humiliated. McKay decides he has to leave, but before he does he visits Leech privately and they batter each other inconclusively at length. Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey come to the conclusion they have to decide matters between them as well. Terrill gathers a force of riders, and Hannassey arranges his defenses in Blanco Canyon and sends Buck to bring back Julie Maragon.
Patricia Terrill: “But if he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?”
Julie Maragon: “If you love him, why would you think it? How many times does a man have to win you?”
The abduction of Julie is ostensibly the reason for Terrill to ride against the Hannasseys. Rufus sees that Julie despises Buck, and she tells him that she’s sold the Big Muddy to McKay. Buck attacks Julie until he is pulled off by his disgusted father. McKay also hears of the abduction and takes off for Blanco Canyon with Ramon. He arrives and doesn’t believe Julie when she says she’s there of her own choice. Rufus figures the matter should be decided in gentlemanly fashion, using McKay’s father’s pistols in an old-fashioned duel. As they pace off and turn, Buck fires prematurely, demonstrating his cowardice again. McKay fires into the ground. As McKay turns away, Buck grabs a gun from a cowboy, takes aim at McKay’s back and is shot down by Rufus, who can’t countenance such dishonor.
Meanwhile, Leech has tried to talk Terrill out of the attack on Hannassey. Terrill doesn’t listen, and the Terrill riders are trapped in the canyon. As McKay and Julie ride out of Blanco Canyon with Ramon and Rufus, the Terrill and Hannassey patriarchs face off. We don’t see exactly the results, but the suggestion is that both are killed. Presumably McKay and Julie live happily ever after at the Big Muddy, and Leech marries the spoiled Pat and continues to run the Terrill spread.
The dominant performances are by Peck, who had a producing role, and Burl Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for chewing the scenery while wearing huge false eyebrows. Those characters are the most interesting in the film, and they make it move. Charlton Heston was at his epic peak, between his roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, as well as starring in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. But he accepted a supporting role and fourth billing in order to work with director Wyler. It turned out to be a good career move, since Wyler directed him in Ben-Hur, too. He was big and in great shape, as we can see from a couple of scenes in which he’s shirtless. (Gregory Peck has no similarly shirtless scenes.)
The weakest point in the cast is Carroll Baker, a hot screen commodity since her performance in Baby Doll, but she’s a little light here. There is no screen chemistry between her and Peck from the start: it is immediately obvious that Jean Simmons would be a better match. Charles Bickford is fine, if a little stiff, as he’s supposed to be. This was the last film for Alfonso Bedoya, who is surprisingly effective as Ramon the vaquero.
The elements of this film are top-flight as well. The cinematography by Franz Planer conveys that it is, in fact, a big country, although most of it was shot in California, not Texas. Several writers are credited, including Jessamyn West (well-known in her time, with whom Wyler had worked on The Friendly Persuasion) and Robert Wyler, the director’s older brother. The memorable music is by Jerome Moross, who received his only Oscar nomination for this film score.
One difficulty was in the script; seven writers were involved, including novelist Leon Uris (Exodus, Battle Cry), but shooting began without all the bugs ironed out. According to Gregory Peck, “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck or Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script. But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman. We had financing from United Artists. So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”
Shooting the movie was not without its problems. Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly between director Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1930) decades earlier and were continuing their antagonism. Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver. According to Charlton Heston, “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.” Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning. It made the acting damned near impossible.” The experience also also touched off bad feelings between Gregory Peck and Wyler, who made up a couple of years later.
Burl Ives in effect reprises his Rufus Hannassey character in the much smaller Day of the Outlaw, made about the same time with Robert Ryan. Ives got on well with Wyler, unlike some of the others. That year he was also getting rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston are good in several other westerns. And Jean Simmons shows up ten years later in Rough Night in Jericho.
Director William Wyler was perhaps the most respected in the business by this time, or at least up there with John Ford. Unlike Ford, Wyler didn’t make many westerns at this stage of his career, although he had started as a director making two-reel westerns in the 1920s. During the 1930s and 1940s he had gone on to make such classics as Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. He had made The Westerner with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in 1940. He had done well with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday earlier in the 1950s and would go on to do other successful large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl. He was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award twelve times (the most ever–he was the Meryl Streep of directors), and he won three times. He directed more Oscar-nominated performances than any other director (36), of which fourteen won. No wonder actors wanted to work with him, even if he required so many takes.
The film was a modest, but not a universal, success in its time. An expensive production, it barely made it into the black financially. It was 11th at the box office for 1958. As Gregory Peck put it: “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money. Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”
If you were a film critic with a Marxist bent (Philip French of The Observer, say), you might see this sprawling film as an allegory of the cold war era, with the inconclusive fight between Peck and Heston demonstrating the futility of the macho ethos and the arms build-up of the 1950s and 1960s.
Make sure you have allotted enough time to watch this. Wyler later admitted he should have cut the film more. “Would I cut it today? Yes, I would cut it. I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.” The story occasionally seems to be developing at a leisurely pace, but it doesn’t drag. At the end you may wonder if there’s really enough story here for all that time, but it works if you let it. This is good enough that many consider it one of the great westerns, and it’s probably the best of its kind—the epic western family saga. But for us, it’s on the line between great and near-great. See what you think.