If you try to draw early, Judge Clark Douglas is gonna be obliged to put you down.
Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!
"All I can say, McKay, is you take a helluva long time to say goodbye."
Facts of the Case
James McKay (Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone) is a former New England ship captain who's decided to make a new life for himself in the wild west. He's engaged to be married to the lovely Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker, Kindergarten Cop), daughter of wealthy land baron Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford, Days of Wine and Roses). James has arrived at a rather tense moment, as Major Terrill is in the midst of an intense conflict with the cantankerous patriarch Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Terrill is ably supported by hardened foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes), while Hannassey has the firepower of his hot-tempered sons at his disposal. The source of their conflict: a piece of land known as "Big Muddy," owned by quiet school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons, Spartacus). Whoever controls Big Muddy controls the area's water supply, which means everyone is eager to purchase the land from Maragon. As this complicated situation builds to a head, James attempts to find a way to resolve matters peacefully.
Throughout much of his career, director William Wyler specialized in intimate human dramas like Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. Later, he made one of the largest blockbusters of all time with Ben-Hur. Intriguingly, The Big Country arrives at the halfway point between the two, delivering an intimate human drama against the massive, sweeping canvas of the west. This approach can be tricky, as smaller stories can easily be engulfed under these circumstances (consider the way David Lean's sprawling direction crushed the gentle human drama of Ryan's Daughter), but The Big Country finds a nice balance between the grandiose and the gentle.
The film is most intriguing as one of the most prominent "liberal westerns," offering a story of pacifism in a genre traditionally defined by macho bluster. Peck's James McKay is one of the least proactive western heroes of all time, simply going about his business and trying not to pick fights. No matter how frequently he is insulted or challenged, he simply swallows his pride and chooses to take the high road. Even when The Big Country inevitably drags McKay kicking and screaming into violent territory, it finds a way to allow the man to maintain his principles even in the most dire of circumstances without turning him into a martyr. Unfortunately, this makes him something of a dull character, as Peck can't seem to find anything particularly interesting to bring to this guy (he would offer a considerably stronger presentation of low-key nobility a few years later in To Kill a Mockingbird). Even so, the film manages to resonate on a thematic level.
Wyler's direction is mostly sure-handed, though there are times when we can't help but wonder whether the 166-minute running time was necessary. This tale probably could have been told in much more compelling fashion in two hours; the longer running time seems like a superficial way of turning the film into an "epic." I'm all in favor of giving stories time to breathe, but this one probably should have been required to run a little harder. The technical assets go a long way towards preventing things from ever getting dull, as Franz Planer turns in some intoxicating cinematography which fully justifies the film's title (moreso than the use of the words "Big Country" as a cutesy catchphrase throughout the film). Even better is the original score by Jerome Meross; one of the most iconic and influential western scores ever written. The sound Meross brought to the movie echoed across the decades, as composers ranging from Elmer Bernstein to Jerry Goldsmith to John Williams would mimic the sort of stirring, tuneful sweep of The Big Country.
The performances get progressively better as one goes down the cast list: Peck and Baker are merely adequate, Simmons is consistently engaging and Heston quietly steals his scenes from Peck simply by glowering in the background with a burning intensity (the part was technically too small for an actor of Heston's stature, but he took the part in order to work with Wyler, who returned the favor by giving Heston the lead in Ben-Hur). The best performances are from Bickford and Ives as the two embittered rivals. There's an intense fury beneath their performances which is easily the most riveting element of the film; Ives in particular kicks the film up another notch every time he strolls onscreen (his fuming monologue during his first scene—which doesn't occur until a solid hour into the movie—is arguably the movie's greatest moment). It's no surprise the actor won an Oscar for his work.
The Big Country (Blu-ray) offers a mostly satisfying 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. I was terribly worried during the opening credits, as there are scratches and flecks all over the place which lead one to believe that this disc is going to be a big disappointment. Don't worry; things get dramatically better as soon as the film gets underway. There are very few scratches and flecks throughout the rest of the film, depth is tremendous, colors are vibrant and detail is excellent. However, there are a few instances of rather obnoxious flicker (particularly during the film's closing scene) and black crush is an issue at times. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is just fine, though perhaps a notch less thunderous than I was hoping for. At least the music is crisp and clean and the dialogue is never muffled. Supplements are limited to a brief archival featurette ("Fun in the Country"), a TV spot and a trailer. Too bad there isn't a commentary or at least an in-depth featurette to put this film's somewhat unique spot in western history into perspective.
While I wouldn't go so far as to dub The Big Country one of the great westerns, it's certainly a welcome change-of-pace for the genre. The Blu-ray release is adequate, though a stronger supplemental package would have been appreciated.
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