on June 22, 2004
This is a sprawling, glorious saga that will be appreciated by people who don't even like the Western genre. With fabulous cinematography, an excellent script, and two of my favorite actors, it's a film I never tire of watching.
Gregory Peck is the sea captain with principles who goes west to meet his future bride, only to find feuds and fighting, and some lawless varmints who need his "non violent" ways of resolving territorial issues. He is terrific as James McKay, who is sort of an Atticus Finch in boots, and looks mighty fine as well.
Charlton Heston has the smaller part as Leech, a foreman who is seething with jealousy and obeys the orders of his unscrupulous boss (rancher Terrill, played with subtle menace by Charles Bickford) as he yearns for his daughter. Heston is brilliant as this rather complex character, and would a year later star in director William Wyler's next epic, "Ben Hur", which is perhaps my all-time most viewed and enjoyed film.
Both female leads are wonderful, and are portrayed with enormous strength; Jean Simmons, with her luminous eyes is the schoolteacher, and Carroll Baker is the tough daughter of rancher Bickford, and is too much like her daddy to make a suitable bride for Peck.
Among the many strong performances in the supporting parts are Burl Ives, and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his gnarly old Rufus, Chuck Connors is his bad to the bone son, and Alfonso Bedoya, is a delight as Ramon, who along with a horse named "Old Thunder", provides some of the humor in the film.
The score by Jerome Moross is lovely (and received an Oscar nomination) and the cinematography by Franz Planner spectacular. The film was shot in the Yuba and San Joaquin Counties in California, as well as canyon country in Chinly, Arizona, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.
If you like a good screen fight like I do, this has a great one, "mano a mano" between Peck and Heston; it initially has no music, just the pounding of the fists and the men gasping for breath, and is very effective.
Romance, drama, and lots of action make this a film that appeals to many, and is suitable for the whole family. Total running time is 165 minutes.
on June 17, 2004
Director: William Wyler
Studio: Mgm/Ua Studios
Video Release Date: May 2, 2000
Gregory Peck ... James McKay
Jean Simmons ... Julie Maragon
Carroll Baker ... Patricia Terrill
Charlton Heston ... Steve Leech
Burl Ives ... Rufus Hannassey
Charles Bickford ... Major Henry Terrill
Alfonso Bedoya ... Ramon Guiteras
Chuck Connors ... Buck Hannassey
Chuck Hayward ... Rafe Hannassey
Buff Brady ... Dude Hannassey
Jim Burk ... Blackie/Cracker Hannassey
Dorothy Adams ... Hannassey Woman
Chuck Roberson ... Terrill Cowboy
Bob Morgan ... Terrill Cowboy
John McKee ... Terrill Cowboy
Slim Talbot ... Terrill Cowboy
Donald Kerr ... Liveryman
Carey Paul Peck ... Boy
Jonathan Peck ... Boy
Stephen Peck ... Boy
Ralph Sanford ... Party Guest
Richard Alexander ... Party Guest, (Oceans)
Harry Cheshire ... Party Guest
It is said that Gregory Peck and William Wyler, erstwhile friends who had previously worked together successfully had a falling out over this film and never spoke for years afterward. Both were co-producers, and Peck became agitated over the fact that Wylie was working too slowly and the film was going 'way over budget. Wylie resented anyone else telling him how to make a movie. It also appears that three of Peck's children had children's parts in the film.
The fight seen between Peck and Heston is one of the high points of the film that has caused much comment, as it was filmed from a great distance, rather than close-uo.
Such details aside, the story depicts a sea-captain, James McKay (Peck) coming West to marry Patricia Terrill (Carol Baker). He walks straight into a personal vendetta between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) over an old grudge, and the usual battle over water rights typical in many Western stories. McKay is a peaceful man who tends to avoid resorting to violence, causing his would-be bride to accuse him of cowardice.
Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) play supporting roles, each of whom has designs on the leading women in the story, leading to antagonisms. Ramon (Alphonso Bedoya) plays his part well, as a Mexican ranch employee. He was better in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I think, but he always turns in a good performance.
This is a good Western, with the usual scenery typical of the West. The plot is somewhat hackneyed, but is well-played and comes off well, thanks to the staff.
Joseph (Joe) Pierre
author of Handguns and Freedom...their care and maintenance
and other books
on April 23, 2004
Although my tastes in film are very broad, I am not fond of Westerns. However, "The Big Country" is an excellent film. It is a Western, but in many ways it doesn't FEEL like a Western. The film's intelligence, strong characters, and reliance on humanity provide a superior storyline to the traditional shoot-'em-up mentality so common in Westerns.
The basic premise concerns retired sea captain James McKay (Peck), who travels West to marry his fiancé Pat Terrill (Baker), whom he met while she was visiting Baltimore. He is quickly thrown in the middle of a huge family feud between the wealthy Terrills and the struggling Hannasseys, presumably over water rights at the Big Muddy, a dormant ranch owned by the lovely schoolteacher Julie (Simmons). However, McKay, the intelligent outsider, sees through the feuding patriarchs (Bickford and Ives). What follows is, in my opinion, one of the most effective showdowns in Western cinema (forget "High Noon").
The characterization in this film is particularly strong. Gregory Peck is very good, as always, even though his McKay character has a level of integrity that may be just a BIT hard to swallow. Carroll Baker's role as the spoiled only child is sickeningly good. Jean Simmons is sweet and demure, but strong and self-sufficient, a perfect contrast to her friend, Pat. Charles Bickford's egotistical role as Major Henry Terrill is great, and his questionable relationship with his daughter raised my eyebrows. Charlton Heston's role is relatively small, but he provides the necessary tension and jealousy between himself, Baker, and Peck. In addition, his character's loyalty to Terrill, although misplaced, is touching. Chuck Connors' character as Buck Hannassey is vile, trashy, and degrading, but his performance is one of the most credible in the film. And, saving the best for last, Burl Ives is absolutely superb in the role of Rufus Hannassey, the overweight, bullying patriarch who simultaneously loves and hates his son Buck. He deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that he won for this role.
There is one flaw to this film that stands out, and another reviewer mentioned it below: watch the canyon barricade scene near the end. The Terrill bunch HAD to see that coming, yet they acted surprised. Wyler missed it there, I think, but overall the film is a beautiful piece of cinema.
One last praise: the score. From the opening credits, this beautifully motivating music resounds throughout the film and is one of my favorites. Just beautiful.
on March 17, 2004
4.5 stars. This is another epic undertaking from legendary director William Wyler. Some of the classic films on his resume have been showered with awards. Films like "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Mrs. Miniver," "Roman Holiday," and my personal favorite from his extensive catalog, the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur." Those four films alone collected nearly 30 Oscars between them! His work is very impressive, and this film has all the ambition one could possibly hope for from such a celebrated director. The scope of the picture is immense, with panoramic vistas beautifully photographed, great costume design and set decorations, and a large cast of legendary actors. All the acting is first-rate, the supporting cast equaling even the greatest performances here. Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, and Jean Simmons all do splendid star turns, while Burl Ives gives his all in his Oscar-winning performance. But this is William Wyler's film, and his outstanding work here is what makes this so enjoyable. The variety of camera angles he uses keeps everything fresh and lively, changing persepctives from mountain tops to showing part of a scene from what it would look like if the audience was watching from under a bed. This is a classic style Western, the kind they just don't make anymore. It has a huge cast, magnificent locales, professional direction and high production values. The only complaint I have it that it is slightly dated, but by the end of the movie I really didn't mind all that much, the acting is so good and the production is so grand in scale. There is one flaw in the story. Just one glaring flaw. When a large group of men ride into a canyon and a large barricade falls, blocking their way, they retreat back the way they came only to be boxed in when another, similarly large barricade falls, blocking their retreat. They couldn't see the first barricade on their way in? It was huge, and not camoflauged in any way. That is the only reason I can't give this otherwise entertaining film 5 stars. However, this is a fun film. A quintessential Western epic with superb direction from William Wyler and excellent acting from the entire cast. My favorite scene is a long fight between Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck at night on the prairie, with only the cows watching them exhaust themselves. Now that's entertainment!
on March 1, 2004
THE BIG COUNTRY is a very good Hollywood Western, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies: a first-rate cast and fine production values, but a less-than-imaginative script written by a studio committee. The story is a variation on the tried-and-true "Eastern Dude Tames Wild West" theme. Co-produced by director William Wyler and star Gregory Peck, it strives a bit self-consciously for epic grandeur, and lacks the comparatively gritty realism of John Ford's thematically related THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.
As the transplanted Easterner, Peck's understated performance is a pleasure to watch. Jean Simmons is fine as the schoolmarm, and the two Chucks (Conners and Heston) are equally good in their roles. A supporting actor Oscar went to Burl Ives, but the standout performance belongs to Carroll Baker as Peck's spoiled fiance. Franz Planer's cinematography is quite good, too, but like the script, performances, and pacing, it's just a little bit too self-conscious. The picture feels more like OKLAHOMA! than like THE SEARCHERS--altogether too theatrical to sustain the suspension of disbelief.
Yet this is a very entertaining movie--at least for those who value character, conflict, and beautiful imagery over car chases, explosions, and other special effects. And fans of Westerns in particular should appreciate the many virtues of this near-Classic. Four solid stars.
on February 29, 2004
"The Big Country," William Wyler's attempt at a Western super-masterpiece, doesn't quite achieve everything Wyler set out to do--there are a few too many panoramic scenes of the Great Plains, for example, in which nothing else is happening. The best parts of this movie, however, are so good that it easily deserves to be ranked as one of Hollywood's classic Westerns. It's interesting to contrast "The Big Country" with its contemporary, "The Searchers," which was denigrated as a mere programmer when first released but now is hailed as perhaps the definitive Western. It's true that John Ford's view of Western society is more mordant and finely shaded than Wyler's. Also, John Wayne's performance in "The Searchers" blows away both Gregory Peck's and Charlton Heston's in "The Big Country;" and although both Franz Planer's photography in "Big Country" and Winton C. Hoch's in "Searchers" are astonishingly beautiful, Monument Valley is simply more interesting to look at than the empty plains. But for all that, I still prefer "The Big Country," for any number of reasons. Its supporting cast is better than that in "The Searchers," and has juicier roles to play; Vera Miles in "Searchers" simply can't compare with either Jean Simmons or Carroll Baker in "Big Country," and Burl Ives' performance as Rufus Hanassey is one of the all-time classic character performances. Jerome Moross' score for "Big Country" is THE classic Western score of all time; the opening credits of "Big Country," showing the stagecoach galloping across the plains to Moross' energizing, haunting main theme, is one of the most stirring images in all cinema. (Compare this with the syrupy folksiness of the Sons of the Pioneers, in my opinion a major irritant in all of Ford's Westerns.) But above all, the big difference between "The Big Country" and "The Searchers" is faith, hope and charity. "The Big Country" insists that reasonable men of good will can make a difference in their society; "The Searchers" sneers at such optimism, insisting that society and community are Band-Aids on the raging cancer of the world as it is. Somewhere between the two viewpoints lies reality, but I know which viewpoint I prefer. (If you want to see a really great John Ford Western, I recommend "Stagecoach" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.") Big in every way, with a panoramic sweep and vigor that improve with each successive viewing. "The Big Country" is a solid four-and-half stars, and I'm happy to throw in the extra half-star.
on February 20, 2004
The Big Country has so many fabulous elements to it that it's hard to know where to begin. The acting is universally superb and every actor is cast to perfection in their individual roles. Gregory Peck has rarely been as understated, subtle and magnificent as he is in the title character of the handsome, secure Jim McKay. He is the quintessential American character and only Peck, Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda could lay claim to that mantle. Carroll Baker plays his shrewish, manipulative and petulant girlfriend to a "T." Charlton Heston is excellent in a supporting role, as are Charles Bickford and Chuck Connors, who is surprisingly effective as the drunken roustabout Buck. Jean Simmons loses her British accent and delivers a memorable, strong performance as well.
Ultimately, the best performance is delivered by Burl Ives, who won a much-deserved Academy Award in his role as the patriarch of the Hannessey clan. Watch particularly for the scene where he disrupts the Major's party and delivers a searing soliloquy on the selfishness and tyrannical tendencies of the Terrell family. This is an acting tour de force from Ives, who is every bit as powerful here as he was playing Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Another great scene is when Chuck Connors walks into the house and says, "Pa, did you want me?" Ives sneers, "I did before you was born!"
The score is incomparable, the mesmerizing string section will have you humming for days. The cinematography is eerily derivative of John Ford and the sweeping vistas makes you want to be there, in every frame.
There are some clichés, notably the fight scene between Peck and Heston, which goes on too long and is a little contrived. The ending is also melodramatic and improbable, yet somehow a fitting climax to this wonderful movie. Rarely has an ensemble cast been so universally excellent, the acting alone makes this a truly outstanding film. I rooted for the Hannessey's throughout the film, others may opt for the Terrell's, but it doesn't really matter in the end. My highest recommendation.
on December 30, 2003
Arguably, the greatest western score, a wonderful cast, a unique interpretation of a story that is always good: the tale of a moral man challenged, misunderstood, and outnumbered. I believe this is hollywood at one of it's most mature and artistic moments.
The Heston and Connors characters are multi-dimensional. Heston as foreman Steve Leech has known and lived by a rough western code of honor. Though it is clear that he inspires loyalty among men, he has given his own loyalty to an unscrupulous man. Of course Leech is jeolous of Jim McKay and resents being replaced by him in the Terrell houshold (the Terrell meanness has its effect on him as does the Hannassey meanness on Buck). Leech's showdown with Mckay, who might be considered to be almost Christ-like, is a crossroad for him. Buck's showdown with McKay is a crisis of a different type. Buck Hannassey, who the story places on a level with Steve Leech is really different. Buck is hopeless, beyond repair or salvation. I felt for him. Though he can be charming and immature, he can also be menacing and cowardly. In Rufus's exchanges with him, it was clear he has had no small part in shaping his son.
I felt empathy for everyone in this movie. The story leaves much unsaid. How did things get to this point? What happens next for Steve and Pat? Does Steve become the new owner of the Big Muddy's foreman?
on October 27, 2003
Is it just me, or does anyone else come to realize how tragic the character Burl Ives plays becomes. I actually feel for him. I think before one watches this movie, you have to develop an empathy for the time and lives these people led BEFORE this moment in their lives. I views the movie again with my wife (Her first viewing) and realized that if this had been me, I would felt more of a liking for Hannasey than the Major. He was a least a man of rough honor. I think most are missing this in their reviews. Ives character had a more character than all but McKay, and in a way they were more alike than one would suspect. The scene when he is preparing the dueling pistols is very poignant, where he gruffly dismisses McKays advice on how to prep the dueling pistols, that he had handled "flintlock and cap and ball" before McKay was even born, and chastises his son because he had never faced danger with "only one shot" between him and death, instead of a "fast draw" and and six shooter. Think about this when viewing, and also when he crashes the engagement party. This man had cajones! I have known few men in life with this type of character, and I feel bad for people who never have been blessed by this type of association. What a tribute to the American personality!
What we have here is a blood feud over water rights between two ranching families headed by Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), with school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) caught in the middle. Directed by William Wyler with stunning cinematography by Franz Planer, we follow a narrative which involves the engagement of Easterner James McKay (Gregory Peck) to Terrill's beloved daughter Pat (Carroll Baker). Frankly, what he sees in her continues to elude my understanding. Some reviewers have dismissed this as a "B" movie but I do not. The quality of the acting (notably Ives's which earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor) is outstanding. Although in what I guess could be considered a minor role as Steve Leech, Terrill's ramrod, Charlton Heston delivers a remarkably nuanced and controlled performance as does Chuck Connors as Buck Hannassey. This is much less a western than a study of two patriarchs (Terrill and Hannassey) who play a zero sum game to gain control of access to water on which they and their herds obviously depend. But there is something else at work in this great but (for whatever reasons) under appreciated film. Julie Maragon is quite willing to allow both patriarchs access to the water. That is not the core issue: rather, it is the conflict between the inflated egos of two proud and stubborn men who detest each other.
For me, one of the most memorable scenes occurs when, just before dawn, McKay and Leech finally have it out. It is an awkward but inevitable and immensely effective fist fight, with much of it filmed as if we were observing it at a distance. Of course, the fist fight achieves nothing other than demonstrating that McKay is more of a "man" than Leech once thought. Before they begin throwing punches, McKay insists that no one know about their fight. Leech totally misunderstands McKay's reasons. Another memorable sequence of events focuses on Terrill and Hannassey as they slowly and carefully work their way through a canyon to their final confrontation. To repeat, theirs is a zero sum game except that neither wins. In these and other scenes, Planer's cinematography and Jerome Moross' music score blend effectively with the cast's superb performances under Wyler's direction.
Why has The Big Country been under appreciated, if not totally ignored among western films? I have no idea. I really don't.