Directed By: William Wyler
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker
Tag line: "Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!"
Trivia: This movie was based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton
By its title alone, you’d assume William Wyler’s 1958 movie The Big Country is a larger-than-life motion picture. Clocking in at 165 minutes and shot in 35mm widescreen Technirama, it certainly has the look and feel of a western spectacular like Giant or How the West Was Won. But ultimately, the movie is about more than sweeping panoramas and massive gunfights. Putting the focus squarely on its characters, The Big Country has more in common with Wyler’s The Little Foxes than it does any big-budget Hollywood epic.
Former ship’s captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) is leaving the high seas behind and moving west, where he intends to marry Pat Terrell (Carroll Baker), a beautiful spitfire and the daughter of wealthy land baron Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), owner of the biggest cattle ranch in the territory. Unfortunately, McKay has arrived at a rather inopportune time, and finds himself caught in the middle of a tense showdown between Major Terrell and fellow cattle man Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), both of whom are trying to buy a few hundred acres of land known as the “Big Muddy” from its current owner, school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). Coveted for its reliable water supply (which never dries up), Terrell and Hannassey know that whoever controls the “Big Muddy” controls the entire area. Aided by his tough-as-nails foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Terrell has been battling it out with Hannassey and his sons, including the reckless Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), for years, with neither man showing any signs of backing down. A pacifist by nature, McKay refuses to take sides in the matter, which doesn’t sit well with either Pat or her father. But before the conflict comes to a head, McKay will get involved, and in a big way.
The Big Country looks great; shot on-location in, among other places, California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park and the Mojave Desert, it makes excellent use of its picturesque settings, which serve as a backdrop for many of the film’s more dramatic moments (a scene where Terrell and Leech, along with a few dozen hired hands, ride into Hannassey’s homestead and wreak havoc is one of the movie’s strongest). Equally as impressive is its star-studded cast, which is superb (especially Burl Ives as the hard-headed but eternally fair Rufus Hannassey, a role that landed him an Academy Award as the year’s Best Supporting Actor). Yet what makes The Big Country such an engaging motion picture is its characters, and how their relationships (some merely inferred) evolve over the course of the film. McKay and Pat, deeply in love at the outset, reach a crisis point when McKay refuses to fight Leech (who clearly harbors feelings of his own for his boss’s daughter), which, in Pat's eyes, makes him look like a coward. Even more intense is the bitter, sometimes ferocious relationship between Rufus Hannassey and his eldest son Buck, whose dim wits and questionable morality are a constant thorn in his father’s side (The Big Country’s most uncomfortable scene has Rufus stepping in to prevent Buck from raping Julie Maragon, a standoff that leads to a violent confrontation).
It’s through interactions such as these that The Big Country grabs our attention, then manages to hold it for nearly three hours, a feat unmatched by many of Hollywood’s grandest epics. In the end, The Big Country may not be all that big, but it definitely delivers the goods.