Legends of Western Cinema Week || The Big Country {1958}


Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons on the set of Big Country (1958). I love this movie!!!

{The Plot}

When seaman Jim McKay arrives in the American West to meet his fiancé Pat's father, Major Terrill, he quickly realizes that he's entered a culture of false bravery and asinine feuds.  Here, courage is tested by quickness to fight and to engage in meaningless risk.  Jim's patience and non-aggression earn him the contempt of Steve Leech, one of Terrill's ranch hands.  (Leech is also somewhat sweet on Pat, which gives him another reason to antagonize Jim.)  Even Pat begins to question Jim's refusal to fight the various men who insult him, believing the refusal must mean cowardice.  The only people who seem to understand and appreciate Jim's restraint are Ramon, another ranch hand, and Julie, local teacher and Pat's best friend.  Additional tension is mounting between Terrill and a local clan, the Hannasseys, over watering rights to a river owned by Julie.  Jim soon finds himself in the thick of it all.

Chuck Connors, Gregory Peck, & Caroll Baker : The Big Country

{My Thoughts}

Something I've discovered about myself (that I mentioned in yesterday's post):  I don't like silent films, but I love films that aren't afraid of silence.  Movies that allow their stories to play out with occasional patches of quiet, when dialogue and action aren't needed, really make me happy.  So it follows that The Big Country, with its sweeping vistas and understated script, makes me happy also.

It pays adequate tribute to the grandeur of the old West while refusing to idealize it beyond measure.  I enjoy the fact that one of the plot devices is Jim's amusement at everyone's emphasis on what "a big country" it is:

"Did you ever see anything so big?"
"Well, yes."
"You did?  What?"
"Well, a couple of oceans."

The Big Country (1958) - Jean Simmons & Gregory Peck
"Red anthills."

As I mentioned in my top ten list, I love Peck and Simmons in this movie.  I mean, I love Peck and like Simmons in general, but especially in this. ;)  Their acting is relaxed and easy while simultaneously deep and, one could argue, passionate.  And I love *SPOILERS!* the way their relationship's development is written.  They really do start out as friends, and even when it transitions to romance, it's never gushy like many old-movie romances. *END OF SPOILERS*  Julie is a great secondary-turned-heroine to root for: she's loyal, witty, circumspect, and selfless.  And as I've mentioned before, Jim is one of those heroes I could actually potentially see myself marrying if they were real people.

I want to like Charleton Heston's Steve Leech so bad, but since he basically attacks Pat and forces her to kiss him and doesn't show any compunction for it, that doesn't seem to be an option anymore.  Sad face.

Burl Ives in The Big Country (1958)

When it comes to the two feuding patriarchs, Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey, what's interesting to me is that they're about equally bad.  The first couple times I watched it, I thought one or another of them was a little better, but I don't think that's really true.  Both men are willing to expend many human lives for a positively ridiculous and thoroughly selfish cause, both men are willing to mistreat total innocents to try to harm their opponents, both men are pretty bad fathers . . . they're problematic.  But at the same time, neither man is exclusively awful.  They both have their good (or at least decent) moments.

As it builds to its climax, the film explores some heavy themes you wouldn't necessarily expect: specifically, patricide, filicide, and attempted rape.  Land disputes and bravery challenges are all well and good, but when you throw in uber-dysfunctional family dynamics and literal sexual assault, that kind of changes the tenor of the show.


Pat is pretty unlikable, but she's well-acted.  The secondary characters are fun, too; don't have much to say about any of them.  Although Buck Hannassey probably deserves a mention for being a memorably odious villain who is also somewhat Layered™.

Another little thing I realized that's worthy of appreciation is the fact that while this movie is filmed in the "glorious Technicolor" of which the pre-60s were so proud, it's not riotously or clownishly colorful.  The costumes are realistic and the prairie isn't given much more of a "golden tint" or "azure sky" than it already has.  I like that.  It's a film that can stand on its own two feet without a surfeit of technical tricks.

This is one of my top favorite Westerns, and I'm very glad I ran into it.



Comments

  1. I am currently in the middle of watching this for the very first time, after seeing it on your list of top ten Westerns!!! I like it so far!

    Catie <3

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    1. Awwww, really??! That makes me happy. :D How did you end up feeling about it?

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  2. I've got to watch this one again sometime soon. I watched it a few years ago and wasn't too keen on it (though I didn't actually dislike it), but since I've noticed my opinions on some other movies have shifted over the years, I'm curious to see The Big Country again and find out if it strikes me any different now that I'm older. But I did love the character of Julie, though! And there was one moment near the end of the film that gave me absolute goosebumps...where Major Terrill was riding into Blanco Canyon...I'll bet you know which part I'm talking about.

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    1. Isn't it interesting how our opinions of movies can change completely over time? I experience that a lot.

      Julie is fantastic! And yes, I think I do know the part you're referring to. ;D

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  3. My dream is to someday see The Big Country on the big screen.

    I like the character of Steve Leech. He goes through some subtle character growth throughout the events. As for the forced kiss on Pat, I imagine their relationship was much different prior to her going east and meeting Jim. I imagine they will eventually pair up. I have imagined a lot about back story and future story for these characters.

    Burl Ives Oscar was well-deserved, but I feel Chuck Connors gave work worthy of notice as well.

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    1. Oooh, that'd be something. I wonder if Fathom Events could be persuaded to do it . . .

      See, I like that he goes through that little arc with Jim, but . . . the incident with Pat is still tough for me to get over. I agree, I think their relationship is quite Fraught With Backstory ;), and I assumed they ended up together, too; but I still wish it had been more clearly addressed as wrong. :-/

      Definitely! Like I said, I feel about the same about both characters; and both performances, come to think of it.

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    2. Oh, oops. I was confused about which one Chuck Connors was. But yes, his Buck was really well-acted. I like that he had a bit of development to him.

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  4. I just rewatched this recently and discovered I like it mostly for how Jim McKay feels no need to prove anything to anyone. I love that. Julie is similar, so I like her for that as well. This is interesting to me because the "proving yourself" plot is something I actually love, but it seems I like the flip side of that coin too. Hmm.

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    1. That's one of my absolute favorite things about it. Especially in a genre where so many characters are all, "I'm the fastest gun alive! I feel no remorse! I laugh in the face of danger! Come at me, bro!," I find Jim's attitude incredibly refreshing and extremely worthwhile. So much more respect for him than for many others.

      Ooh, interesting! I think . . . I think I've discovered that I actually don't like the "proving yourself" plot. Dunno.

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    2. Haha! Yes, with the come-at-me-bro thing being prevalent. Have you seen The Fastest Gun Alive? It totally tackles the problem with having that reputation. And Glenn Ford is so sweet in it, and spends so much time and effort on NOT proving that he's the fastest gun alive.

      Anyway. I think that I have spent a lot of my life proving things to people, in various ways, and so I understand that plot device really well, but as I age, I'm mellowing out and coming to the conclusion that I don't have to prove myself to people all the time. One of the things I loved best about Captain Marvel was the moment at the end where she says, "I have nothing to prove to you." She knows her own worth, and she's the only one who needs to. It's exactly the same attitude Jim McKay has, and I love them both for it.

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    3. I haven't! But now that I know more about what it's about, I may just try it. ;)

      That's really interesting! I think I tend to be slightly stressed or rubbed the wrong way by the proving oneself plot because the thought of constantly having to prove myself exacerbates some deep long-time struggles/insecurities of mine. Ya know. But I like the thought of looking at it as a relatable thing instead. (And yeah, I definitely need to try Captain Marvel.)

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    4. Captain Marvel is kind of the MCU movie for people who aren't very into the MCU. Weirdly. Like, people I know who love the MCU were often meh about it, but other people I know who are generally meh about the MCU were like, "This movie is amazing!!!" So... you might like it. I love it because it's really smartly written, the plotting delights me, and it's set in the 1990s, and those were my teen years! I know that music, I miss those clothes. I wish Blockbuster Video still existed.

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    5. Ooh, interesting. Everything I've heard so far sounds promising. I'm especially looking forward to seeing Brie Larson in the role. I've only seen her in one thing so far, but she was great.

      (Oh, and I wish Blockbuster Video still existed, too. We had one in my town until like 5 to 7 years back, when it was removed. Sadness.)

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  5. Yes. Just yes. I adore this movie.

    Beautiful review. :) Also, I didn't know Jim was one of "those" fictional characters for you???? HOW DID I NOT KNOW THAT?

    so yeah, I'll be on the lookout for a Jim for you. ;P

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    1. It's wonderful. I'm so glad you/others convinced me to try it. ;)

      Thanks! Yeah, I didn't, either, until a little while ago when I was trying to answer a tag question to that effect and I had to actually think about it. xD He's not even (necessarily) one of my top favorite heroes, but when I thought of fictional guys if they were actual people, he seemed one of the most likely, you know?

      Haha, thanks. ;D

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  6. My family just watched this a couple of weeks ago and YES, the cinematography is just lovely and Gregory Peck is just grand. "A couple of oceans." << Love that line.

    It was a lot of fun seeing Chuck Connors as a slimy low-life. My siblings and I grew up on The Rifleman, but you know what?--I think I prefer him as a villain. Very convincingly despicable.

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    1. Isn't it wonderful? Haha, me too. :)

      I haven't seen The Rifleman, but it'd be interesting to see him as a good guy.

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