Monday 13 November 2023

Movie Review: The Big Country (1958)

Genre: Western
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors, Charles Bickford
Running Time: 166 minutes

Synopsis: Former mariner James McKay (Gregory Peck) relocates from Baltimore to the west as he prepares to marry his fiancée Pat (Carroll Baker). Her father Henry "the Major" Terrill (Charles Bickford) owns a massive ranch, and his loyal foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) desires Pat and resents James' presence. The Major is locked in a feud with nearby landowner Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), as both are dependent on water from land owned by schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who is romantically pursued by Rufus' loathsome son Buck (Chuck Connors). James attempts to peacefully de-escalate every situation, but his quiet dignity unsettles the locals.

What Works Well: An epic western, William Wyler's adaptation of the Donald Hamilton book explores multiple grand themes, from personal (a man's measure of self-worth) to societal (the slow evolution towards non-violence). Strong romance elements provide James McKay with two possible matches in Pat and Julie, and as illustrations of his character, McKay's treatment of women contrasts sharply with the more brutish Leech and Buck. The film's strength resides in multiple sturdy character arcs, veterans Charles Bickford and Burl Ives adding depth to the antagonism between The Major and Rufus, while the father-son tension between Rufus and Buck provides a powerful undercurrent. Expansive cinematography by Franz F. Planer complements a running "big country" reference, and the music score by Jerome Moross is one of the iconic western soundtracks.

What Does Not Work As Well: Given the breadth of storytelling, the ending deserved more reflective exposition.

Conclusion: Big narrative ambitions fulfilled on a big canvas.

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