Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Charlton Heston, Caroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors
Director: William Wyler
Mood: If you’re severely burnt out on so-called ‘epic Westerns’ and don’t feel like any of them deserved to be as long as they were but also you have three hours to kill on a chilly weeknight so why not put yourself out there one more time.
How great is it when a Western turns out to be way better than you expected?
Okay, I didn’t actually have expectations going into The Big Country. I couldn’t remember who Gregory Peck was, and Burl Ives will forever be the holly-jolly narrator and soundtrack of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
But this movie – my mind is blown. I was delighted, and admittedly also relieved because it’s almost 3 hours long which is a f*cking nightmare to sit through if a movie is bad. When my mom told me the runtime before handing over the DVD, I was still suffering the burn from the torturous nine hours of Into the West, and was tempted to put it at the bottom of the pile
The Big Country is worth every single minute of its screentime. It’s so good that it took me two days of revising this review to properly explain my thoughts, which I’m still not sure I successfully did but I’m also sure director William Wyler would appreciate the rewrites (more on that later). It almost defies description. You HAVE to see it.
The Big Country opens with James McKay (Gregory Peck) arriving in an Old West town to join his fiancée (Carroll Baker). At first he’s given friendly greetings, but all is not what it seems.
His future father in law is a powerful and scheming land baron named Henry Terrill aka The Major (Charles Bickford), who has an equally powerful nemesis: rancher Rafe Hannassey (Burl Ives). The Major also has a brutish ranch foreman (Charles Bronson) who thinks the young Miss Terrill should be his.
For decades the two old ranchers have been fighting to gain control over a third ranch that holds the town’s only river – whoever gets it can cut the other’s cattle off from water. Through their ranch hands they create trouble for each other’s homes and livestock whenever possible.
A range war is about to go down, and McKay is caught in the middle. And to top it all off, his fiancée shows her true colours, and they ain’t pretty.
The Big Country is fascinating because it SEEMS like your typical classic Western – but it’s not.
It’s got plenty of action and even at times physical comedy, yet the entire time you’re watching you’re struck most by its quietness. And that’s an intentional and carefully cultivated feeling, created through seemingly bottomless long shots of open range coupled with the soft-spoken manner of Gregory Peck.
Don’t mistake ‘soft-spoken’ for delicate, because Peck’s McKay is capable with horses, guns, his fists, and his words. He just doesn’t show it unless it’s absolutely necessary.
For the first few scenes I was thinking, okay, this guy is a tenderfoot, he’s not going to give me the satisfying Western lead that I need for a movie of this scope. But you quickly realize the powers of McKay’s silent observation, thinking before acting. Peck delivers entire thoughts and opinions through nothing more than subtle facial expressions.
His whole performance is actually an insightful commentary on masculinity.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Burl Ives is a rumbling powerhouse as the Hannassey patriarch. His character shows up late, steals the show, and keeps your attention right to the bitter end.
One of the best parts about The Big Country is that, like I said, things are not what they seem. So you have this burly, rugged old rancher who seems like a bad guy because his boys are drunken idiots. But Rafe has a stronger moral compass than anyone except McKay, and Ives fully delivers this layered performance of a good heart behind a gruff exterior.
He also has the best facial hair in the entire movie. Watch this tense scene to appreciate the beard (and the acting).
Ives deservedly won Best Supporting Actor at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, which are shockingly the only two wins AND the only nominations of his career.
Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker give solid performances as young school teacher Julie Maragon and Miss Patricia Terrill. Baker is all petulant, explosive emotions, while Simmons flies under the radar for half of the movie, yet your eye always goes to her. My only criticism of the characters (not the acting) is that one gets annoying pretty quickly, and the other doesn’t have enough to do in the story.
The Big Country takes its time developing each character, so you get to know their backgrounds and motivations and nobody is just filler. It’s a huge production, but somehow also intimate.
You don’t realize that you’ve spent the better part of two hours waiting for action (aside from some astounding trick riding in one of the first scenes), because you’re so caught up in the plot. And then suddenly BAM! The most unique fist fight I’ve ever seen in a Western, or any movie for that matter. It’s shot mostly from a distance, at twilight, in total country silence broken only by crickets. The whole thing is exhaustingly realistic.
The heavy firearms action, when you get there, is a major payoff. You get a kidnapping, horseback chase, and a showdown in a canyon – all the classic Western goods.
And there’s COMEDY. Oh my god, some of the scenes are f*cking hilarious. When McKay is trying to ride Thunder, the bucking bronc that’s broken every cowboy in town… you’re laughing at the antics of this bratty horse, and marvelling at how somehow it still fits perfectly with the rest of the movie.
It’s a good thing The Big Country turned out so well, because apparently it was absolutely f*cking hellish to make.
William Wyler was notorious for demanding countless takes on his movie sets, and saying ‘do it better’ without providing further detail. Simmons was so messed up after filming that she didn’t speak about her experience until the ‘80s. She finally opened up, saying that Wyler would constantly rewrite scenes the night before they were to be shot (which Peck confirms but downplays in an interview), then rewrite them again in the morning and even during takes.
Meanwhile, Peck – who had been Wyler’s close friend of 30 years – didn’t speak to the director for three years after filming wrapped.
But… The Big Country has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and earned Burl Ives those awards, AND supposedly Playmobil even based an entire cowboy line on the film. You can’t argue with the results. Besides, I rewrite my reviews literally every time I open them, so who am I to judge Wyler’s methodology?
Go watch this movie right now, and try to tell me you aren’t impressed. Seriously, join my Facebook group and tell me what you think. Then check out this ridiculously cute behind-the-scenes video where the cast and crew engage in healthy forms of entertainment like chess and desert turtle races.
TURTLE RACES. Life before smart phones, oh my word.