(Background information and quotations are taken from the William Wyler biography “A Talent for Trouble” by Jan Herman (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1995) and liner notes to the limited edition CD of “The Big Country” soundtrack).
William Wyler started his directing career making two- and five-reel westerns for Universal in the twenties. In 1930 he directed his first sound feature, “Hell’s Hinges”, which many consider the best version of the famous western novel, “The Three Godfathers” by Peter B. Kyne.
Wyler brought to “The Westerner” (1940) a flinty look that is quite atypical of westerns of the period, but it would be in 1958 in “The Big Country” that marked, in a large-scale manner, a return to his directorial roots.
A modest hit at the time, and only generating mildly enthusiastic reviews, “The Big Country”, for me, looks better with each passing year. Despite the lack of large-scale action set pieces, the almost three-hour running time flies by as we watched a gallery of flawed characters and hesitant heroes and heroines.
Like John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), it’s a western for people who don’t like westerns. Rather than having stock characters dealing with outlaws or Indian attacks, “The Big Country” boasts half a dozen fascinating characters and their interweaving dynamics as they face each other over control of the Big Muddy, the large, watered acreage lusted after by Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), the largest and most powerful cattle baron in the territory, and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), a coarser and, for want of a better word, “hillbilly” cattle rancher who wants the Big Muddy so he can readily water his cows. The Terrills and the Hannasseys clans detest each other like the Hatfield and the McCoys, and neither wants to give into the other.
At one time, the Big Muddy was shared by both families, as it was under the control of the grandfather of the local school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). While she owns the Big Muddy, she doesn’t have the time, money or manpower to work it. But she desperately wants peace in the valley and does not want to sell it to either the Terrills or the Hannasseys.
The spark is lit with the arrival of Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), a former sea captain and fiance of Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of Major Terrill. Ranch foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) picks McKay up in town to take him to the ranch and can barely conceal his contempt for Eastern dude McKay. (There are hints of a romantic past between Leech and Patricia).
Despite his derby hat and dandified clothes, McKay is no pushover. He thinks the feud is silly and offers to buy the Big Muddy from Julie as a wedding present for Patricia, with the understanding that the Big Muddy will be available to everyone, even the Hannasseys. Despite the peace this would bring, McKay’s plan is not acceptable to any of the parties.
Hannassey’s oldest son, Buck (Chuck Connors) is a mean, sadistic drunk who is sweet on Julie and tells Rufus that Julie is attracted to him and when they get married, the Big Muddy will be theirs. Julie can barely stomach Buck, but Buck tells Rufus otherwise.
McKay gets grief from all sides. Buck picks on McKay, Leech wants to show up McKay in front of everyone, and Patricia wants McKay to stand up for himself. But McKay knows who he is and doesn’t think he has to prove anything to anyone.
Wyler said, “The Big Country was about courage and cowardice. It was about a man’s refusal to act according to accepted standards of behavior. Customs of the Old West were sort of debunked.”
“The Big Country” was based on a Saturday Evening Post serial titled “Ambush at Blanco Canyon” written by Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton. Screenwriter James Webb brought the story to the attention of Gregory Peck who was looking for a story to re-team with his “Roman Holiday” (1953) director William Wyler. Peck and Wyler had formed a production venture and were looking for a project that interested them both. Production stalled on a script called “Thieves’ Market”, about the planned robbery of some paintings from the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Script problems could not be licked and the Hamilton story seemed the ideal back-up. Herman writes: “The setup seemed perfect. Peck had a development deal with United Artists, which would finance and distribute the picture, but he and Wyler would be the bosses. The pair divided their producing responsibilities and formed separate companies. Wyler’s was World Wide Productions; Peck’s was Anthony Productions, named for his infant son. Wyler would be in charge of all things artistic. Peck would have casting and script approval, and he would handle the ranching aspects of the picture: hire the wranglers, rent the livestock, choose the horses, in effect serve as foreman.”
Filming took place in the Mojave Desert and in the Stockdale, California area, deliberately chosen for their remoteness. Wyler “wanted to be able to look around 360 degrees and not see any telephone poles or TV antennas…any signs of civilization,” remembers second unit director Robert Swink.
“The Big Country” is a big movie, and never was a movie’s title more appropriate. The country is big, and Wyler often keeps his camera far, far away, showing how insignificant his characters are amidst the splendor of the country. One justly famous sequence is a fist fight between McKay and Leech. Wyler keeps the camera at a very great distance and while there are some close-ups, much of the fight is filmed from a great distance, showing how petty the fight really is.
Scenes of Terrill and his ranch hands riding to the Hannassey spread are often shot from a great distance, making the riders look like ants as they traverse the magnificent countryside.
An underlying theme is the advent of civilization, as represented by Peck’s character. Rough men like the Major and Rufus may have been needed to tame the wilderness, but there’s no place for blood feuds anymore. If the territory is to be tamed, it’s up to the McKays and Julie Maragons to make the frontier a civilized place.
Peck said art be damned, they were out to make money. “We wanted to make money out of this. We were going after a commercial hit, not the Academy Awards.”
Come Oscar time, “The Big Country” was only nominated for two Academy Awards, but both richly deserved. Burl Ives was nominated, and won, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as the patriarchal Rufus. It’s a great, memorable performance. The same year, Ives appeared in the role he’s probably best remembered for, Big Daddy, in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Likely some voters were awarding him for that as well, as the two characters are a lot alike. But I think even if Ives didn’t essay his Big Daddy portrayal, he would have won that year. Competition was Arthur Kennedy for “Some Came Running”, Gig Young for “Teacher’s Pet”, Lee J. Cobb for “The Brothers Karamazov” and Theodore Bikel for “The Defiant Ones.” Ives’s closest competition was likely the criminally underrated Arthur Kennedy, but Ives is so memorable in “The Big Country that he easily dwarfs the competition.
His Rufus is talked about for the first half of the film and we know him only as the avowed enemy of the Terrills. If he’s anything like his son Buck and his wranglers, then he’s a scourge to the countryside.
We first see his hulking presence from the back, as he is ready to crash a fancy dance at the Terrill Ranch. Much more coarse than the Major, and living in poverty for years, Rufus begins to appear curiously sympathetic as he berates his rich neighbor. All he wants is water to water his cows. Looking at his clothes, Rufus doesn’t have one eighth the material wealth that the Major possess, and while he has a mean streak a mile wide, we do sense a strange kind of honor within him.
Ives also delivers one of my all-time favorite movie lines in a response to Buck, his son he doesn’t like.
Buck: “You want me Pa?”
Rufus: “Before you was born, I did.”
The film’s other Oscar nomination was for Best Score by Jerome Moross, a true landmark score, and one of the most splendid examples of musical Americana every composed. Even decades later, the music was used in commercials and is one of the most identifiable ever for a western. I say give Aaron Copland’s western ballet scores a short rest in the concert hall and program selections from “The Big Country” score instead. Sit back and listen to the audience go nuts.
Wyler was known in Hollywood as a perfectionist, but he was busy prepping “Ben-Hur” and was not present at any of the scoring sessions, leaving that in the hands of supervising editor and second unit director Robert Swink. Swink said Gregory Peck, wearing his co-producer hat, attended several of the scoring sessions.
Charlton Heston, who has probably had more genuinely great film scores written for his movies than any other actor (with the possible exception of Errol Flynn), said, “I saw the final cut just before they added the music…and I’ve got to say, the difference that music makes for the better is immeasurable.”
Moross should have won the Oscar that year for Best Score, but in one of the injustices in Oscar history, he undeservedly lost to that grand publicity hound Dimitri Tiomkin for “The Old Man and the Sea.” Just goes to show that Academy members were just as tone deaf then as they are now. Other nominees for Best Score that year were David Raksin for “Separate Tables”, Hugo Friedhofer for “The Young Lions” (my choice for runner-up winner) and Oliver Wallace for Disney’s “White Wilderness.”
While “The Big Country” movie ranked eleventh for 1958 releases, it barely broke even, grossing $5 million. The original budget was $3 million but production problems and delays caused the budget to eventually reach $4.1 million.
It was not a happy experience for many of the cast members, thanks to the lack of creature comforts in a remote location, and new script pages that were being written as filming was going on.
Peck and Wyler fought on the film, to the point where Wyler was using an intermediary to direct Peck. Jean Simmons wouldn’t talk about the film for years. Only Connors, Ives and Heston seemed to have escaped unscathed.
Herman quotes Peck: “There were a lot of good things about the movie, but I frankly don’t think it was audience’s fault. It was our fault.”
Heston said, “A good film, ‘The Big Country.’ I’d have to say it falls short of being a great film, but that’s not to suggest that it does not contain greatness.”
Still, Peck and Wyler have nothing to be ashamed of. “The Big Country” stands far over many of the same westerns that year, and the incredible production logistics, on-location shooting and balancing character dynamics over a long and demanding production no doubt stood Wyler in good stead for his next film, “Ben-Hur” (1959) the biggest film of his or anyone’s career.
To read about “Ben-Hur” and other Wyler masterpieces, visit the William Wyler blogathon page at The Movie Projector http://themovieprojector.blogspot.com/p/wm-wyler-blogathon.html
My very great thanks to R.D. Finch of The Movie Projector for inviting me to participate in the blogathon.