The Big Country: Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston leads an all-star cast in William Wyler’s Cold-War-era epic Western

The Big Country(1958), with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston heading an all-star cast, is a visually sumptuous Western drama from the great director, William Wyler. Apart from subverting a lot of the Western myths and genre tropes ,the director intended the film to be an allegory of Cold war, which was at its peak at the time.

William Wyler’s 1958 epic western, The Big Country, is a big film in every way; a big star-cast: Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Carrol Baker and Burl Ives; big sets, big locations and some big themes and ideas; hell even the food is big: A huge steak served as breakfast for Peck in a scene has a giant fried egg on it. By the mid-1950s, television had absorbed a substantial portion of the movie audiences. In an effort to compete with the new threat, theatrical films became bigger and more expensive. The filmmakers began experimenting with many widescreen processes like Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd AO and Technorama, to give the audience an experience that Television cannot provide. The Big Country was an effort in this direction. To shoot the film, Wyler hired photographer Franz Planer and together they decided to make the film in Technorama and Technicolor. The film, though set in Texas, was primarily shot in California, and the astounding pictorial beauty of this film is on par with any of the great westerns made by the Western maestro, John Ford. William Wyler, like Howard Hawks, was a director who tackled films in every genre, but, unlike Hawks, who had a signature style which he imparted to every genre he tried, Wyler was a totally pure director. devoid of any stylistic affectations. This would hurt him later on, when the French critics would start championing the auteur theory – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock,, etc. would be their favorites – and Wyler would be dismissed as just a good craftsman who made films in the studio system. Whether he was a great artist or just a good craftsman, it goes without saying that Wyler made some of the greatest films in the American mainstream. Think of The Letter, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, Best Years of our Lives, Roman Holiday and Ben-Hur. His films are what I consider the classical American mainstream cinema. When we speak of Hollywood cinema, i.e., American cinema from the classical period in general: with its glossy look; classical shot compositions; measured pace of editing; three act screenplays; sophisticated characterization; gorgeous stars\star-actors; symphonic musical score et al, we are talking abut the films of William Wyler, Victor Fleming, George Cuckor, George Stevens and their ilk. They were the high priests of that kind of cinema, where the emphasis was on telling a good story cleanly and entertainingly. Wyler’s films were classy, sophisticated, adult dramas (or melodramas), rendered with all the gloss and sheen of a studio product. So if you’re not a fan of Wyler’s aesthetic, it automatically translates into saying that you don’t necessarily like mainstream American Cinema. Post the death of Old-Hollywood, those kind of filmmakers would slowly become extinct. With the emergence of the New-Hollywood , there would be a shift from classical American style of storytelling to a more European sensibility, with their emphasis on modern cinematic techniques like shaky camera work, gritty lighting, non-linear editing and down & dirty realism. New-Hollywood would be followed by the age of blockbusters, where technology would be the king. Special effects and technical wizardry would overpower the story telling completely. But still, the legacy of the Old-Hollywood form of story telling would be continued to an extend by the likes of Sydney Pollock and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was a big fan of Wyler and in his initial days as a filmmaker, he used to seek out the director for advice when he was planning his projects.

Coming back to The Big Country, it’s the second of the only two feature length westerns that Wyler has ever made  – The Westerner(1940) with Gary Cooper was the first. He started out as a horse wrangler in the industry, and had directed a few 2 reel silent westerns in the beginning of his career. This film is an adaptation of a novel by Donald Hamilton, and it was brought to his attention by star Gregory Peck: who called it ‘The Grand Hotel‘ of westerns, because it had the potential to assemble an all-star cast, in the spirit of that MGM classic. Both Peck and Wyler had made the hugely popular romantic comedy, The Roman Holiday, in 1953, and they had struck up quite a rapport during the production of the film in Rome. So they thought that it would be fun to produce a movie together; and to this end , they started a production company in partnership, under which The Big Country would be made. Making a western was keeping in with Wyler’s wishes, which was to make a movie of every kind (he would tackle the highly successful biblical\Roman epic Ben-Hur next). But, the film was beset with problems from the get-go. Even after throwing 7 writers at the property, Wyler was not happy with the script. But the start date for shooting was looming; as they had already arranged financing with the studio, United Artists; they had already assembled an all star-cast and a crew; which means that they had to start shooting without a finished script: a terrible proposition for such a big project and for a director like Wyler who was a meticulous perfectionist, who liked to have it all down on paper before shooting started. The script had to be written between scenes, and things came to such a head that even star\producer Gregory Peck had to turn writer; writing up lines for the actors as Wyler was directing them. This obviously put a lot of strain on the production and it quickly went over-budget, and if that was not enough , serious professional differences started cropping up between Peck and Wyler. Peck tried to use his clout as a producer to re-shoot some of his scenes ; he was unhappy with his performance in them and thought that he could do a better job if the scenes are retaken, but Wyler, claiming that, as director he has the ultimate authority over all creative decisions, overruled him, thus straining their relationship irreparably. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the shooting of the film, Peck and Wyler were not on talking terms, and they wouldn’t be on talking terms for many years after that. Wyler, though revered and respected by everyone in Hollywood , was notorious for two things: one, he was an obsessive perfectionist – nicknamed 40 take Wyler – who used to slave the actors to their bone, calling for take after take until he had extracted the last ounce of their energy and talent for a scene. Second, he was fiercely non-communicative: never giving proper directions to the actors, or telling them what he wanted specifically for the scene and making them toil till they have found (what he wanted) on their own. Obviously, not all actors can adapt to this kind of working style. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker found this intolerable, to the extend that Simmons considered this her worst experience in movies. She never talked about this film or Wyler in her life again. But there were others like Charlton Heston who enjoyed this process. At first, Heston didn’t want to do this film. He had just starred in the De Mille blockbuster The Ten Commandments as Moses and he considered playing the supporting role in the film – it was the fourth billed character in the film – a step down. But after a meeting with Wyler, who promised to rewrite the part to suit him better, and knowing Wyler’s propensity for extracting the best out of actors, Heston agreed to join the cast, and was richly rewarded for it. Heston gave one of his career-best performances in this film, but most importantly, it lead to him being cast in his Oscar winning role as Ben-Hur in Wyler’s very next film.

As a Western directed by a filmmaker who is neither an ‘American’, nor a ‘Western’ director by nature, The Big Country is a very different sort of a Western; maybe more of a melodrama set in the American west; or  perhaps even an Anti-Western that debunks many of the ideologies and values associated with the western genre as well as with the American West. The film paints, both broadly and subtly, a hyper-masculine world, detailing the lives of two generations of men in Texas. The older generation represented by the feuding Cattle-barons: the upper class, ultra-rich Major Henry Terrill(Charles Bickford); and the lower class Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), who has a primitive ranch in the Blanco Canyon. The second generation is represented by Major Terrill’s ranch foreman (and surrogate son) Steve Leach(Charlton Heston) and Hannassey’s boorish, drunken, no-good son Buck(Chuck Connors). It is never clearly stated as to how the feud between the two ranchers started; the situation is more like that of Montagues and Capulets, without a Romeo and Juliet in the middle. The main bone of contention between the two sides is a tract of land with a watering hole named ‘The Big muddy’. The Big Muddy’s territory is the location of the town’s only nearby river and. as such, it is a vital source of water for both the Terrill and Hannassey cattle during times of drought. It’s obvious that whoever controls The Big Muddy will control the cattle business in the territory and, hence, both Terrill and Hannassey are keen to own the property. The current owner of The Big Muddy is Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), a schoolteacher , who is a good friend of Terrill’s daughter Patricia(Carroll Baker), and who has kept her property open for both sides. Julie will not sell to either of them because she wants the water to be shared, not fought over.

The film kicks off with the arrival of James McKay (Gregory Peck), Patricia’s fiancée. McKay is from the east, and he is a former sailor, whose family owns a shipping line. It is usually inferred that at least one character in a film is the director’s voice, his alter-ego, and in this film, it would be McKay. It is through him that Wyler is going to make major statements about how he feels about the west and the Western. McKay is literally a ‘fish out of water’ (and so is Wyler in the Western genre) transplanted from the ocean into the desert(the ocean of fire) and finds himself right in the middle of a water dispute between two clans. And just to complicate matters a little further, McKay is a pacifist. That quality could be very easily construed as cowardice in this part of the world, where violence is a rite of passage. And the entire theme of the film hinges on this aspect of McKay’s character; he is repeatedly called upon to prove his worth through violence, but he sticks to his convictions and refuse to play by the rules of this world, but, there is an inconsistency in his character(ization): though he refuses to indulge in violence on his opponent’s terms, he is not above violence per se; he is not above indulging in violence and aggression to prove his worth to himself. In other words, Wyler gets to keep his cake and eat it too; the film is his polemic against traditional Westerns , but at the same time, he manages to fill the film with enough gunfights and fistfights and many of the genre tropes to give the audience the pleasure of watching a genre picture- which is why I hesitate to call this a revisionist Western, even with a pacifist protagonist at the center, who debunks a lot of the western myths. In this regard, this film is very close to two of Director George Stevens’ westerns: Shane and Giant. In Shane, Stevens wants to de-mythologize the west, but still cant resist making the lead protagonist and antagonist mythical; or in Giant, where it’s about two generations of a family in Texas , and the patriarch tries to mold his son in his image, but fails; the son becoming a doctor instead of a rancher. There is a lot in common between Wyler and Stevens, they were both friends in real life and both have made films in different genres and their movies possessed a similar kind of sophistication and intensity. Both served in WWII, which changed them irrevocably and hence the pacifist slant in the movies they made post-war. The big difference being that after the war Stevens totally changed as a filmmaker, making only serious movies; Wyler continued to mix it up , for every Ben-Hur , there was a How to steal a Million. In the film, the Terrills live in a grand, mansion with imported furniture, chandeliers, and carpets (like the Benedicts in Giant); while their opponents, the Hannasseys, live in a small, run-down home and dress like westerners (like James Dean’s character)

Getting back to the film, McKay is met by Steve Leach at the stagecoach station, and driven to Terrill’s farm. The contrast between the urbane, sophisticate McKay and the rough and butch Leach is very evident and there is a hint of animosity from Leach’s side- the reason for which, we’ll soon realize, is due to the fact that Leach fancies Patricia and he’s jealous of this effete easterner who has managed to grab her. McKay is met warmly by Patricia and they go for a ride in their buckboard. On the way, they are accosted by Buck and his men, who are obviously bored and looking for an opportunity to prove their machismo, and Patricia’s arrogant and condescending behavior provides them the opportunity to do just that. They rough up McKay ruthlessly, even as McKay refuse to react, thus bringing him down in Patricia’s eyes. Patricia is spirited, but still the typical arrogant rich girl, who dresses well and flaunts ladylike airs. She worships her macho father Major Terrill  and wishes to see McKay become a copy of him, but McKay refuses to indulge her fantasies. This would be repeated several times in the course of the story: McKay would be challenged by Leach to ride a wild bronco stallion; then later, Leach would call him a liar and challenge him to a fight; but both times, McKay refuses to play along, and in each instance, Patricia’s love and respect for him reduces further and further to the extend that the couple reconsider their engagement, and, finally, call it off for good. But as already mentioned, McKay ultimately triumphs in each one of those challenges, albeit on his own terms. He tames the bronco stallion after making sure that nobody’s out there to witness his triumph. He also gets into a fistfight with Leach – in the dark of the night with no witnesses – and pretty much licks him; post which, Leach, not only develop a grudging admiration for McKay, but also starts questioning the major’s tactics and his own way of life. Indeed, Leach is the most interesting character of the film, and Heston brings him alive with a very subtle, brooding performance. Of all the 5 male characters, he’s the one who has an arc; the other characters, remains the same throughout the film. It’s a pity that he doesn’t get many scenes. It’s his relationship with Patricia that’s most interesting aspect of this film. There are are lot of inconsistencies in the character building and plot development with respect to these characters. It’s hard to fathom that Patricia and McKay would fall in love in the first place, leave alone getting engaged and planning to get married. What about her relationship with Leach?; she and Leach looks made for each other and there is palpable sexual tension between the two in their scenes together. Did they have an affair before Patricia went east and met McKay?. Is Leach a jilted lover?; we get a hint of that in a scene , where Leach violently kisses Patricia and she reacts by biting his lips and drawing blood. Instead of addressing a lot of these themes, the film commits an inordinate amount of time in developing the McKay-Julia relationship, which is quite bland and uninteresting- like those characters. First, McKay buys The Big muddy from Julia: with the promise that he will keep the peace in the region by keeping the place open for all sides; and then post his breakup from Patricia, falls in love with Julie. What is more unpardonable is that these two characters – of Leach and Pat – just disappear from the film at the end. We never see Patricia after she breaks up with McKay; and Leach is left stranded, after the Major and Hannassey kill each other in the final duel. The film ends with McKay and Julia riding off to start a new life together, leaving a lot of plot points unresolved. Some of it must be design, but a lot of it seems to be due to an ever evolving script , and the fact that Wyler had to go to work on Ben-Hur, before he could finish this film. So the responsibility of editing down Wyler’s 4 Hr cut to a reasonable length fell to editor Robert Swink: who managed to pare it down to 166 minutes. But even at that length, the film feels both unfinished and too long. It’s because some scenes just go on a little too long, even after the point (of the scene) has been made. Wyler later admitted that if he was fully involved with the editing of the film, he would have taken out another 15 more minutes.

The film was intended by Wyler to be an intelligent allegory of Cold War; and it does succeed on that level. The parallels are very clear. The Terrills, lead by Major Terrill represents capitalist America, then under the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the 5 star General, who was the supreme commander of Allies in World War II.; while Rufus Hannassey and his gang, the proletarians, represents the soviet union, then under First secretary Nikita Khrushchev: They even live in a closed out box canyon, separate from the rest of the world, just as USSR was behind the Iron Curtain. Burl Ives, who plays Rufus Hannassey (and who won an academy award for supporting actor for his performance in this film), gets to make a sort of ‘ We will bury you‘ speech reminiscent of Khrushchev’s warning to the western leaders. It’s after the Major and his boys has invaded his ranch and beaten up his boys as retaliation for roughing up McKay. Rufus barges into Terrill’s house, when he is having a welcome party for McKay, and in full view of all his guests he stands tall and delivers a powerful warning; it’s the scene that nailed Ives his Oscar

“Major Terrill! When you come a-ridin’ roughshod over my land scarin’ the kids and the women folks, when you invade my home, like you was the law or God Almighty, then I say to you, I’ve seen every kind of critter God ever made, and I ain’t never seen a meaner, lower, more stinkin’, yellow, hyprocrite than you! Now you can swallow up a lot of folks and make ’em like it, but you ain’t swallowin’ me. I’m stuck in your craw, Henry Terrill, and you can’t spit me out! You hear me now! You rode into my place and beat my men for the last time and I give you warnin’. You set foot in Blanco Canyon once more and this country’s gonna run red with blood ’til there ain’t one of us left! Now I don’t hold mine so precious, so if you want to start, here, start now”

With words like ‘run red with blood‘, you get an idea what Wyler is going for here; with the big muddy standing in for some third world country, whose resources – water, oil, etc.. – both sides wants to exploit. Gregory Peck’s character in the film (on a lighter note) maybe referred to as the United Nations for his pacifist stance: his final mission to save Julie from the clutches of Hannasseys, just as Terrill and his men are about to go to war with them, has the appearance of a UN peace mission; he could also be considered to represent the more liberal elements in the American society , who wants a peaceful resolution to the problems between two worlds. Both Peck and Wyler were politically liberal, and it’s obvious that they identify closely with the character of McKay. There’s an endearing quality to Peck’s brand of stoic heroism, which sometimes may get a little bland and boring. But still, you cant imagine any other actor in this part; with his towering physicality and powerful voice, he imparts the character a serene dignity. Burl Ives was one of the rare actors on the film who enjoyed working with Wyler, and it shows in his performance. He gave an equally strong performance as a patriarch in director Richard Brooks’ film Cat on a Hot tin Roof the same year, and he was widely expected to garner a nomination for that performance. But it was for The Big Country that he got nominated and won. The only other nomination that the film got was for Jerome Moross’ fantastic music score. Wyler hated the score and wanted it removed, but after test audience responded enthusiastically to it, he choose to keep it in the film. Today, the score is considered among the five best musical scores ever composed for Westerns.

In the end, the basic theme of The Big Country is  “bigness” itself.  For one: The men in the film are too big for their women. Carroll Baker famously joked that she made it up to Gregory Peck’s chest, Charlton Heston’s stomach and Chuck Connors’ Belt buckle. The film’s most recurrent feature is the contrast between big and small. It is introduced with the opening credit sequence, as a stagecoach makes its way toward town. Between close-ups of the horses’ hooves and wheels, we get long shots of the stagecoach, which appears like a speck on a vast landscape. Then we get to the main town, which again is a speck in the desert; the same for Terrill’s mansion and Hannasseys ranch. In the fistfight between Leach and McKay, Wyler pulls his camera away from the combatants to emphasize their puny insignificance against the massive expanse of their natural surroundings. Even the music fades out, leaving only the sounds of insects and pounding fists. The silence and the seeming stillness of the moonlit scene are in stark contrast to the way such a thematically crucial scene of violence would be handled in almost any other western. The contrast between the immensity and grandeur of the land and the insignificant, petty people who inhabit it frames the conflict between pacifism and violence. But these big themes often gets lost in the bigness of the landscape. In the end it’s shown that McKay’s pacifist philosophy has won, but not before it’s severely tested in the climax. McKay rides to the Hannassey place to demand Julie’s release. Rufus admires his gumption, and when Buck tries to assault Julie, McKay immediately moves to defend her: by first brutally beating up Buck, and then accepting a challenge to an old-fashioned gun duel with him; something he has refrained from doing up to that point. Of course, He refuses to kill Buck in the final duel: firing the shot into the ground rather than shooting the defenseless Buck cowardly hiding under a wagon – Buck had fired his gun early, violating his father’s protocol, but his bullet misses McKay. Finally, Buck has to be killed by his own father, when he tries to shoot at a defenseless McKay with a friend’s gun. This character change in McKay is mirrored (in reverse) in Leach in the climax: when he refuses to follow Major Terrill into Blanco Canyon to kill Hannassey and his men. His decision is motivated, in part, by his newfound respect for McKay but also by his realization that he and his men are outnumbered and are likely to be killed. But when the Major decides to go it all alone, Leach cant help himself, but to follow him into the canyon (and certain death). This is a very problematic scene, both in it’s conception and execution; underscored with triumphant music, positioning the Major as some kind of  gallant hero, when he is anything but that. Thus, the overall pacifist theme of the picture is severely undercut by Wyler’s ambivalence, which is most evident in the climax.. He seems to want to distance his audience from the violence, yet, some part of him wants to celebrate it. But all said and done, it’s still a film of great worth, ambition, scope and unparalleled visual beauty. Like many westerns made in the 1950’s, The Big Country grapples with the notion of negotiating with the enemy rather than engaging in violent confrontation; but when faced with an implacable and irreconcilable enemy, the nonviolent position proves untenable. The ’50s is considered the decade when ‘the Western’ grew up. The was mainly in  response to various international conflicts arising during the decade, and The Big Country, albeit flawed, is still a welcome addition to the great westerns of that period. Wyler would  pursue the pacifistic themes of this film much more successfully in his very next film (and his magnum opus), Ben-Hur, in which Charlton Heston played Judah Ben-Hur,: who goes from a peace loving Judean prince to an avenging angel and back to being a pacifist.