Better known for his multi Academy Awards winning epic movie Ben Hur, William Wyler also directed one of the most memorable Westerns of all time. Despite its somehow dissuasive length, The Big Country has established itself as a classic along the years.
In William Wyler’s legendary 1958 film The Big Country, Gregory Peck plays James McKay, a sailor travelling to the West to join his fiancée Patricia Terrill (Carroll Becker) at her father’s ranch. He immediately finds himself in the middle of a conflict as the Tirrels and their enemy clan, the Hannasseys, are fighting over water rights. Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), a schoolteacher whose big ranch (“The Big Muddy”) provides a large source of water that she shares with both clans, is also drawn into the conflict. McKay has a hard time fitting in because his behavior is seen as controversially “calm,” especially when confronted to characters such as Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the Terrills’ foreman. He will have to take part in the conflict in order to gain respect from the Westerners.
What immediately strikes in this film is a sense of duality: whether it be the framing (through the mixing of close-ups and wide shots) or the storyline itself, every aspect of the movie seems to have an opposite. The Big Country appears to be more intellectual than the average Western. At the beginning of the film, the main character James McKay is the ultimate antihero.He is an outcast, seen as a “coward” due to his different behavior. Steve Leech, on the contrary, represents the real man in his own community and is exactly what his people expect a man to be. Likewise, Patricia and Julie are two radically different women: Patricia is the rich blond spoiled girl, whereas Julie is the soft brunette schoolteacher and “peacemaker”. Wyler truly gives a voice to the outcasts in this movie, using a rather banal storyline for the genre: “two feuding clans in the West” and taking it to the next level by introducing two external characters against two communities, representing Good and Evil. Both of these characters are against conflicts, and the movie really is about making peace, condemning those who look for power and lands.
In addition to the great storyline, the cast and the acting are outstanding: Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons are perfect as the peacemakers, Charlton Heston’s rendition of the typical masculine Westerner is incredible, and Burl Ives’s portrayal of the envious Rufus Hannassey got him an Oscar. The Big Country is also an aesthetic success, each landscape shot looking like a photograph and making the characters look as small as possible, as a contrast to the impressive “Big Country” behind them, the source of all the conflicts. Jerome Moross’s music comes as the icing on the cake, not too imposing and yet underlining the key moments of the film, making them more memorable. The only weakness of the movie might be its pace: the film is rather slow, maybe due to the emphasis on the “Nature” shots, thus adding lengthy parts to an already long film with a running time of 166 minutes.
But despite its slow pace and lengthy bits, it is worth (re-)discovering this western, because the acting and the beauty of the shots make The Big Country an all-time classic and a must-see movie. In fact, what prevented it from becoming an “iconic” western such as The Magnificent Seven remains a mystery.
The Big Country
Screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett and Robert Wilder;
Adapted by Jessamyn West and Robert Wyler from the novel by Donald Hamilton;
Directed by William Wyler;
Produced by William Wyler and Gregory Peck.
Length: 166 minutes.
James McKay . . . . . Gregory Peck
Julie Maragon . . . . . Jean Simmons
Patricia Terrill . . . . . Carroll Baker
Steve Leech . . . . . Charlton Heston
Rufus Hannassey . . . . . Burl Ives