The Big Country (1958) Director: William Wyler
‘Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!’ -read the film posters. The Big Country is a great film, and one of the few films to feature Charlton Heston in a supporting role, rather than as the protagonist. It has an all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Jean Simons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and also a Golden Globe). The now famous score was nominated for an Academy Award.
It tells the story of James McKay a successful Navy sea captain who goes to visit his girlfriend-turned-fiancée Patricia Terrill (played by Carroll Baker) in the American West on her father’s large ranch house. They met in Baltimore, and she is a bit of a spoiled brat. On the way into town, McKay is laughed at by the school boys and is rounded up as a prank by the Hannassey boys (a rival family). Little does McKay know, he is walking into a tempestuous situation in which two families are rivaling over the land rights to a regional river. On the way to the family ranch, they meet with Patricia’s friend, a schoolteacher named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). Julie is the inheritor of the disputed river (“the big muddy”) and its rights which pass through her family’s ranch.
At any rate, James and McKay and Patricia Terrill travel on to her family’s ranch, and McKay quickly realizes the hostility between rivaling families. Amidst this chaos, McKay plays mediator, though Patricia’s father, Henry “The Major” Terrill (played by Charles Bickford) quickly disapproves of McKay. However, when he learns of the Hannassey boys terrorizing McKay and his daughter on the way into town, he goes to their farm in confrontation, despite McKay’s attempts to defuse the situation. McKay is also despised by the foreman, Steve Leech (played by Charlton Heston). In order to win over the family, McKay secretly learns how to ride the unridable bronco, “Old Thunder.” Then, a gala is held at the Terrill ranch to celebrate the upcoming wedding, but the party is crashed by the Hannasseys. In an effort to solve the troubled battle between the two families purchases the “Big Muddy” (as the river is nicknamed) from Julie Maragon with a promise to keep the river and ranch access open to both families. McKay is brought back to the ranch, and everyone suspects him of being a coward, including Patricia. She is further disappointed in his decision to purchase the ranch and river, in order to allow the Hannessey family access, as well. She is blinded by her partisanship. The end of the film plays out like a Greek tragedy as father kills son, neighbor kills neighbor, and McKay gets into an unintended scuffle with the Hannesseys, but McKay ultimately brings new balance to the big country. In the course of the infighting, Julie Maragon and James McKay find mutual love with one another. In the end, they decide to start a new life together.
It was the favorite film of Dwight Eisenhower, as he had it screened at least four times at the White House. Gregory Peck later noted that the film was intended to be a liberal commentary on the Cold War. During filming, Wyler was notorious for giving vague direction, and merely instructing actors to “do it better.” Many of the actors were troubled by their experience on the film for years to come. The script was also being re-written constantly during filming, as well. Wyler even left the film to begin work on Ben-Hur, leaving the final shots to be finished by his assistant.
The film was shot on various locations in the Central Valley of California, as well as the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The film is a classic, an epic western and an essential film on par with the greatest westerns ever made. Everything about The Big Country is big, from the all-star cast, to the sweeping landscapes, as well as its themes of heroism and tragedy, and to top it off the soundtrack is absolutely incredible. Some have suggested The Big Country is an anti-western, as it discusses the age-old Chaucerian debate between arms and letters, or war and diplomacy. However, the western film has always been a platform upon which to discuss the highest of questions (consider Stagecoach in 1939 for reference). Perhaps a better argument can be made for full consideration of the character of James McKay, the man of letters, a foreigner, who pursues a policy of both diplomacy as well as bravery in the face of death. Perhaps this course of action is best in a “big country.” The Big Country is an awe-inspiring film.