Film review of the Hollywood western The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons.
Director: William Wyler. MGM.
Producers: William Wyler, Gregory Peck.
Writers: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett Robert Wilder.
Camera: Franz F. Planer.
Music: Jerome Moros.
Sets: Frank Hotaling.
Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoy, Chuck Connors, Chuck Hayward, Buff Brady, Jim Burk, Dorothy Adams.
A wealthy ‘green horn’, sea captain Jim McCay (Peck) arrives in a wild, lawless Texan town to marry the young woman he met whilst she was holidaying in the East of America some time ago. Despite the hostility of the macho men around him, including his potential-father-in-law, the indomitable Major Henry Terrill (Bickford), he attempts to settle himself as a man of principle and conscience. None the less, he finds himself amidst the middle of an internecine civil war between the Terrills and their sworn enemies, the Hannessey’s, led by another might man, Rufus (Ives).
The Wild West was a big country, so it is entirely appropriate that a Hollywood western would one day be called such a thing.
But how does a director and his technical team fill those vast vistas, desolate, dusty plains and acres of spare, sun scorched prairie?
Of course, it’s impossible to do that and quite needless too. If one wants huge buildings, traffic and masses of bodies, one shoots in nimble New York not wide-open Wyoming.
There are ways around this though and one stylistic convention of the western seems to be that the smaller things such as human behaviour, sexuality and even their physical presence are magnified, cranked up to beyond normal in a vain effort to be recognised amidst the massive sandstone outcrops and gigantic sky (see review of Duel In the Sun, 1946 here)
It helps when the male actors are huge themselves. The Big Country must have one of the most sexually dimorphic of casts as Peck, Heston, Connors and even burly Ives dwarf tiny Simmons and Baker. Big humans are needed as the sparse communities they inhabit, dotted around in far-flung corners of this world, hardly encroach on the geography. Even Henry Terrill’s opulent mansion house is nothing but a grain of salt out here.
The storyline itself has a relatively flimsy central conceit – an argument between two families about who should have sole access to a cattle watering-hole which is owned by an independent third party.
This is not enough to even touch the sides of a Texas location, so this is cleverly conflated into a decades long fight that involves and splits the local community (cowed into passivity by the forces around them, they watch helplessly when a group of young Hannassey men from are beaten remorselessly by the Terrill’s). This culminates in everyone hanging on the precipice of an internecine civil war that is ready to explode at any moment.
It is not for nothing that Terrill’s name evokes the word terror, and Pa Hannessey’s first name could easily be misconstrued as ruthless.
That the sexuality of the denizens of this quagmire of hatred should also be escalated to a higher level is not a surprise.
Right from the outset, their behaviour toward the opposite sex is shocking. Pat, on seeing her fiancee Jim, almost crushes him with a clutching, needy embrace. Pat cares not a jot for creating a “public scandal”, even when her good friend Julie has to look away in embarrassment when they kiss (something Pat’s father will also do).
Citizens of the big country have possessive natures. Pat wants to own Jim, Steve Leach (Heston) wants to own Pat, Connors wants to have Julie at whatever cost, Jim desires to break the wild horse he has been ear-marked to ride, Terrill brazenly announces his desire to marry the much younger Julie (only half-joking about the age gap). Finally, Terrill and Hannessey want Big Muddy more than anyone else wants anything or anyone else, with each others scalps thrown in for good measure, whichever comes first.
When Connors accosts Julie in her house and eats her dinner, he tells her they should marry. They should join their bodies and merge their lands and he looks directly at her presently empty belly as he says this, ignoring her physical revulsion at the prospect.
Heston, the square-jawed, unimpeachably noble (Ben Hur) or quasi-godly (The Ten Commandments) lead in so many epics, may have been handsome in film but he never simmered so much as he does here.
Staring fixedly at Pat as she dances with Jim at their engagement party, he quickly jumps in to claim her for himself and physically injures her, punishing her for rejecting him. “You’re hurting my hand” she complains, his facial expression and hold on her not changing.
There are hints toward sexual transgression, particularly in the need for the male characters to emasculate or feminise other men.
Jim’s surface air of gentlemanly conduct marks him out for attack from the very moment he first alights from his stage coach. Leach mocks him, as do local boys, for his bowler hat, his clean, pressed suit and freshly saved face in direct contrast to the rough-hewn, sweaty, fists-talk-first machismo of his western peers.
The drunken Hannessey boys rough road him, lassoing him like cattle, Buck describing him as “handsome…neat, clean and polite”. Is this summation enamoured, or envious? Possibly both, Peck’s character is deliberately feminised and we can see that there aren’t enough women to go around the Hannessey camp. Terrill even tells us they live like animals.
Pat’s violent reaction to her man being treated in this way is more the kind of reaction her manly father would want from her intended. She has to be contained by the Hannessey’s when she tries to horse-whip and hit them, pumped up by the testosterone that Peck presumably stores in one of his prim leather suitcases for special occasions.
As so often happens in western’s, the women have to spur decent, law-abiding men into becoming the real men that befit these surroundings, breaking them in as Jim must do with the horse. But then, the big country is in Pat’s DNA and soul, so there could be no other reaction available to her, despite the surface, lady-like respectability.
Her sexuality is, however, faulty in one regard – that she unhealthily idolises her father in an incestuous manner. She refers to her father (as she does Jim) as “darling” and later, as the date of her marriage creeps ever closer, tells him “I don’t think I could stand being away from you”. Despite the ‘animal’ nature of the Hannessey’s, Terrill does not discourage this.
Moross’ thunderous and infamous score reverberates all around the empty airspace, shaking the film to a start, with long, loud trumpet blasts and furious fiddling on violins. It is the most evocative music to accompany a western film and resulted in his only Oscar nomination.
Performance wise, only Oscar-winning Ives could hope to dominate these grand vistas, and I’m not just talking about his girth. He doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the film and blazes a trail from there on in.
He underlines the inescapable destiny of him and his enemy: “I’m stuck in your craw Henry Terrill and you can’t spit me out”. Despite Jim and Julie’s attempts at diplomacy, the only way a peaceful future is possible for this community is if both patriarchs do indeed consume each other and spit out the remains to whiten in the sun.
His first monologue is awesome to listen to, twitchingly piquant and penetrating. Ives puts in a calm, patient and measured performance and it is richly layered to enable us to question who is more civilised between him and Terrill.
When he interrogates his son over Julie’s supposed infatuation for him, you sense not only his massive disappointment, but how parental pride can be re-ignited by the smallest glimmer of hope in their failed progeny.
All round the performances are impressive, Peck’s political politeness, Simmons’ ravishing innocence, Baker’s pert, high-strung neuroses, Heston is an appealing villain and Bickford’s stentorian stubbornness.
Wyler concentrates on the sexy interplay between these pioneer era wife-swappers, but there are some stand alone moments to treasure throughout, most notably Peck and Heston’s epic fight scene, ironically filmed against a cold blue sky rather than a hot red/orange sunrise, underlining the futility of their duel.