Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Big Country (1958) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

What better day to watch William Wyler's epic Western THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) than Independence Day?

THE BIG COUNTRY has just recently been released by Kino Lorber. This is a Western I love a great deal, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it via Kino Lorber's gorgeous Blu-ray.

THE BIG COUNTRY is a big movie, with a lot to it. Though the film has a lot of substance, the basic plot is actually rather simple, as a newly retired sea captain, Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), relocates from the East Coast to the untamed West. He joins his fiancee Pat (Carroll Baker), whom he met in Boston, and her father, Major Henry Tarrill (Charles Bickford), at their sprawling ranch.

Tarrill is embroiled in a decades-long dispute with the much poorer Rufus Hannassey (Oscar winner Burl Ives) over water rights. Both Tarrill and Hannassey want schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) to sell them her ranch, which includes a river, but Jim gets the idea that she should sell it to him instead, and he'll let both Tarrill and Hannassey use the water, ending their feud. As it turns out, this isn't a popular idea.

From the very moment he arrives in the West Jim is told, in so many words, "You're doing it wrong." Jim's clothes, his lack of care for others' opinions of himself, and especially his attitudes toward violence mark him as an outsider. Pat begins to have doubts about Jim, and perhaps she's also having second thoughts about her father's loyal top hand, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston).

There are more plot threads here and there, including the attempts of Hannassey's lecherous son Buck (Chuck Connors) to have his way with Julie, but in the end, as more than one person comments in the bonus features, the movie's overarching theme is the futility of violence.

One of the things I love about the movie is that the characters, particularly those played by Peck and Heston, aren't drawn in black and white. Peck is the film's hero, but at times he's frankly a bit too self-centered. One can appreciate that he doesn't feel a need to "prove" himself to anyone in the West, wanting his fiancee to have faith in him without him needing to defend her honor or chase after villains. He's correct when he says he's not responsible for what others think, yet at the same time this is offset by a certain lack of empathy, not really caring to try to understand another point of view.

Jim has admirable character traits aplenty, such as privately taming a horse for his personal satisfaction, rather than to win others' admiration, and being interested in brokering peace in the region. That said, with each viewing I recognize more that he's really quite arrogant, especially when he takes off for a couple days to visit Julie's ranch.

Jim only tells the ranch hand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya) where he's going, without a word to his hosts. Although Jim is used to navigating by a compass and stars, Pat, Steve, and the Major all believe he's likely lost in the huge country. When he comes back Jim isn't the least appreciative of their concern or worry, just stating over and over again that he wasn't lost and was fine. Hello, you didn't even want to bother to let your fiancee know you'd be "out of town" for a few days?! There's such a thing as pushing "You need to have faith in me" too far.

I also frankly wonder how he became engaged to Pat in the first place, given how wrong they are for each other; had he been at sea too long? It's a bit perplexing given his otherwise being an intelligent man. Towards the end the script tries to fill in a couple of blanks in this regard but the lack of explanation is a definite shortcoming.

Near the end that Jim accepts that there are times only violence will do and acts accordingly.

While Peck is the hero, Heston's jealous Leech could at least initially be construed as a villain of sorts. An orphan who's worked on the ranch since he was a teenager, he's clearly in love with Pat himself, but might have felt he wasn't good enough to approach her, or perhaps he just didn't expect her to come back from Boston engaged!

Though Steve is rather brutal with Pat in one scene, it's only after she strikes him with a whip. Unlike Jim, Steve understands Pat; she may be childish and petulant, and their equally spirited personalities are bound to clash at times, but they're the right match, both loving the Major and the ranch. Pat expresses the fear that Jim won't want to stay on the ranch; didn't she think of that in the first place? Meanwhile the man who shares all her interests and goals has been right in front of her.

Throughout the film we see Steve mature and grow, including in the famous pre-dawn fistfight with Jim, building to the powerful scene where Steve tells the Major he won't do his dirty work anymore -- after which his loyalty comes to the fore and he rides after the Major to what seems a certain death in the Hannassays' canyon. It's the best sequence in the movie.

Honestly, Heston is my favorite character of the entire film; it may be a relatively supporting role but he makes every moment count.

Even Buck Hannassy isn't pure villain, as we see in the movie's climactic action sequence. This complexity makes the movie feel like a good book, providing a great deal for the viewer to consider. I take away new insights each time I watch it, and I would have really liked it to keep going past "The End" to see "what happened next" to the two lead couples.

Julie and Pat, while big roles, don't experience the same growth as the male characters, but I suppose if they did it would have been a five-hour movie! Cathy Wyler notes in an interview on the disc that if her father hadn't gone right into BEN-HUR (1959), she thinks he might have edited down the film's two hours and 46 minutes. (On the other hand, BEN-HUR wasn't exactly short, either, so maybe he wouldn't have!)

I can think of a couple spots in particular that could have been whittled down; I've always found a big chunk of Jim's visit to the Big Muddy unncessary, and his conversation with Julie becomes a bit bizarre. It may have been meant to show them bonding but it's never worked for me. The more low-key and cerebral Julie is clearly the right match for Jim but their relationship should have been better scripted; fortunately, towards the end, no words between them are necessary.

Backing all of the drama is the landmark score by Jerome Moross, one of the greatest ever composed for a movie. (It's hard to believe it was only an Oscar nominee, not a winner, losing to Dimitri Tiomkin's THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.) The film's score turns a good movie into a great one.

The beautiful widescreen cinematography was by Franz Planer. It's shown off to great effect on this new Blu-ray release.

The plentiful extras include the documentary DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER (1986), a commentary track, and new interviews with the children of Wyler, Heston, and Peck, plus additional featurettes, a trailer and TV spot, image galleries, and reversible Blu-ray case art. The interviews with the filmmakers' children are all illuminating; I especially loved Fraser Heston saying that one of his earliest memories was of Burl Ives singing to him. Can you imagine?!

Due to the many extras, Kino's DVD release comes on two discs, while the Blu-ray is a single disc.

Both the movie and this Kino Lorber Blu-ray are highly recommended.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

9 Comments:

Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Hi again, Laura!
I heard the wonderful theme music to "THE BIG COUNTRY" some years before I ever got to actually see the film! Aged 13, the very first LP I bought was the soundtrack album and got to know the whole score intimately. Bizarre choice for a 13-year old? Perhaps, but as a confirmed fan of westerns the Jerome Moross score spoke to me.

11:33 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Obviously violence is not futile. Check out The Second World War. Or the War Between The States. Or the force signing of the magna Carta. or the American Revolution, but not the French -- which lead to terror, Napoleon, a fine fellow but it didn't exactly work out, and the restoration of the monarchy. I detest this film, but love Heston's character in it along with the score. Sanctimonious, smug and over long by ninety minutes.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I loved that story! How fabulous THE BIG COUNTRY was your very first LP.

Barrylane, while I love the film, I'm not entirely out of sync with your thoughts on it, i.e., as I mentioned, I find Peck's character more annoying each time I see it LOL.

It's funny, in the great fight scene with Peck and Heston where Peck asks what they accomplished in the end, the irony is it did accomplish something, a new understanding of each other, especially on Heston's part. And Peck learns, in the final sequence, that sometimes evil demands a violent answer.

I wouldn't have trimmed 90 minutes, but I could go for 20. ;) I would have liked to see it come in under 2 and a half hours.

Best wishes,
Laura

9:22 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, imagine if you will The Big Country done by Ranown, with Randolph Scott in Peck's part, Richard Boone playing Heston's and Budd Boetticher directing with a Burt Kennedy screenplay. Tightly constructed and coming in at under ninety minutes. And as I imagined on another sight, bullets coming out of Scott's eyes if nowhere else.

9:29 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Should, of course, be 'site'...sorry about that.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Very interesting comments on the movie. I agree with Laura, while I like the movie it is definitively too long. Heston is by far more interesting than Peck.

Barrylane, I agree with our your thoughts on non-violence. Frankly, while it sounds wonderful I have never believed in pacifism. Nice in concept, not so much in reality. I think the idea of have Boetticher turn it into a tight lean movie would have been great. I'm a fan of those very economical B movies that manage to tell their story in often less than 90 minutes.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

A beautiful and continually engrossing film. The Blu-ray experience must be breathtaking, but someday I want to see this on the big screen.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, your review makes me want to watch THE BIG COUNTRY again. I remember the first time I saw this movie as a youngster on TV, which was pan and scan, but that is what we had at the time. Wow! Starting out with the rousing musical score of Jeorme Moross. I think, without a doubt, this music score was the greatest done for a Western movie. The score just doesn't go along with the action, it enhances the emotions involved. Moross created a work that stands head and shoulders above as one of the great masterworks of movie music.

Franz Planer's photography was breathtaking in showing us the vastness of the "Big Country." He uses the camera as an artist uses his brush to paint gorgeous mountains and plains where the drama is played out under a blue sky. How Planer kept from getting an Academy Award nomination is beyond me, at least composer Moross was nominated for musical score.

Western fans expecting quick-draw gunfights and good guy/bad guy morality, might be disappointed in this so-called pacifist Western. I personally come at this from a viewpoint of one whose family was involved in a two-family feud back in my maternal grandfather's day. Some of the bitterness from the feud lasted down into my time. Most of the fights were fistfights, which can be very brutal. My great-grandfather was beat to a pulp and left in a ditch. My grandfather said that his father wasn't good for much after the beating.

THE BIG COUNTRY was an unusual pacifist Western, in that it failed(though, not at the box office). The fistfight between McKay(Peck) and Leech(Heston) wasn't pacifist and it actually proved something, in that Leech gained respect for McKay. The pistol duel between McKay and Buck Hannassey(Chuck Connors) proved who the real coward was. The grand finale, I'll leave it at that.

THE BIG COUNTRY is a very memorable entertaining spectacle that I will watch again.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Great discussion here! One of the signs of a good movie is sometimes how much it makes viewers think and how much discussion it creates, and that's definitely the case with this film.

Barrylane, I'm definitely an advocate of "shorter is better" the majority of the time, and Ranown's RIDE LONESOME with its 73-minute running time is one of my favorite films. But while THE BIG COUNTRY needed editing, I just have trouble envisioning this film as one of those tight, lean movies I enjoy so much. On the other hand I do find it fun imagining your alternative version and casting!

Margot, enjoyed your thoughts also, there's definitely a contingent here wishing for the "Ranown" version!

Caftan Woman, I agree, it would be wonderful to see this in a theater. I'd love to hear that music blasting out of speakers! :)

Walter, I hope you have the opportunity to revisit the movie soon. The score is simply superb, isn't it? I also loved Planer's widescreen photography.

I enjoyed you bringing your family experiences to the comments. I definitely agree that the fistfight was more significant than Peck's character seemed to recognize.

Best wishes,
Laura

11:17 AM  

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