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The Big Country


It seems 1958 turned out be a very good year for lavish, all-star cinematic soap operas. We met the Pollitt family in the Tennessee Williams drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the Varners in The Long Hot Summer. Director William Wyler lent a slightly heavy-handed directorial hand to a third soap opera that year called The Big Country that tells a compelling story but suffers from a screenplay that definitely could have used some tightening.

This western drama is the story of Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), a New England city slicker who arrives for a visit in a western town to visit his fiancee, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker) who he met while Pat was on a visit back east. Pat has persuaded Jim to visit in order to see if he has the stuff to be a genuine cowboy. Upon arrival, Jim finds himself at the center of a long and bitter feud between Pat's family and another family named the Hannaseys who are battling over the water rights on a parcel of land which actually belongs to a schoolteacher named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) whom the eldest Hannassey boy, Buck (Chuck Connors) tells his tyrannical father Rufus (Burl Ives) that her feelings for Buck will eventually make Julie give up the land.

On the other side of the feud, Pat's dad, the wealthy Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) has tread lightly because Julie is Pat's best friend. We also meet Henry's devoted # 1 ranch hand, Steve (Charlton Heston) who has been secretly lusting after Pat for the longest time but has been hiding it from everyone, and there you have it, all the elements of a classic soap opera, except that most of it takes place on horseback.

William Wyler is no stranger to this kind of spectacle, it just would have been nice if he had been aware that his story isn't as original as he apparently thought it was, because he certainly takes his time telling this story, even though we can see what is going on about 20 minutes in, which would have been all right if the story by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, and Robert Wilder was as suspense filled as Wyler seemed to think it was. Wyler puts a lot of trust in a story that he allows to unfold much too slowly and asks a lot of the viewer to invest this much time into a story this predictable.

Don't get me wrong...the film does have a lot going for it, including some interesting characters and some offbeat casting that really works. Gregory Peck is an unlikely western hero but he really commands the screen here and I don't think I have ever enjoyed Charlton Heston onscreen as much as I did here. Jean Simmons brings a layer of strength to her accustomed onscreen beauty and even Carroll Baker is somewhat interesting as the spoiled and self-absorbed Pat. Bickford was strong as Maj. Terrill and Burl Ives is absolutely superb as Rufus Hannassey, a performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I had always wondered why Ives won the Oscar for this and not for his Big Daddy Pollitt, but now that I've finally seen this, I have to admit this is the superior performance and he won for the right film.

Wyler has created a sweeping and beautifully photographed western horse opera that works on most levels, even if it goes on a little too long. That familiar theme music was composed by Jerome Moross and if you blink, you'll miss a young Roddy McDowell in a bit part.