Tuesday, June 26, 2012

William Wyler Blogathon: The Big Country

(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.


Grand Old Movies said...

While 'The Big Country' is not my favorite Western, you make a compelling argument for its excellence, particularly in your discussion of the cinematography and of the Burl Ives character, who basically is not a rapacious man but only needs to water his cattle. It highlights how Wyler could bring larger themes to his movies and work them out both in terms of narrative and mise-en-scene. Thanks for a great post!

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Great post here, Kevin. I could see where Peck may have grown frustrated with Wyler since he had his money on the line. Still, he should have known better than to put his own money up with a man who was notorious for coming in way over budget.

Paul @ Lasso The Movies said...

This is certainly one of the quieter western from the 50's, but I enjoyed it all the same. It is truly a breathtaking movie and I watched it last year on blu-ray and loved it even more. Thanks for your in-depth review!

Kevin Deany said...

GOM, your post on "The Westerner" was a stunner, and I almost felt embarrassed to have my post in the same blogathon as yours. I feel like a pygmy among giants. Thanks for stopping by.

Kim, Peck and Wyler were great friends up until production of "The Big Country." Peck wanted Wyler to do another take when he is lassoed by the Hannassey gang, as he felt he looked too silly in the scene. Wyler said he would go back to re-shoot it, and despite Peck's constant reminders, never did. Wyler called it a wrap on location and Peck was furious. They didn't talk to each other through the rest of the movie.

Two years later at the Academy Awards, Peck was standing in the wings when Wyler picked up his Oscar for "Ben-Hur." Peck, ever the gentleman, held his hand out to congratulate him, telling him his Oscar was well-deserved. Wyler shook his hand, thanked him and said, "But I'm still not re-shooting that buckboard scene." Peck laughed, the ice was broken, and they were able to resume their friendship. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Kevin Deany said...

Paul, thanks for your nice comments. Quieter is a good word to describe this movie. Like I said, it doesn't have the large-scale action scenes. Even the final showdown isn't as epic as we think its going to be. But Wyler and company really stress the characterizations, and I think they are all different, unique individuals. I thought it held up really well. I would love to check out the blu-ray someday. I guess I'll have to break down and buy a player one of these days. Thanks again for writing.

Caftan Woman said...

Do you remember back in 08 when the AFI made up their list of top 10 westerns? Do you remember that "The Big Country wasn't on that list of top 10 westerns? I ranted about that for days. What am I talking about? I haven't stopped ranting about it. It is one thing for the Academy not to recognize greatness in front of them, but another for an organization whose mandate is to recognize it to be so horribly wrong 50 years hence. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In other words, I'm a fan of "The Big Country". I believe my husband to be fond of Jerome Moross' thrilling score, but when he hears it the response is always "not again!"

Like all fine William Wyler films, "The Big Country" is endlessly engrossing. I looked forward to your article and it was well worth the wait.

Sam Juliano said...

Kevin, I still do like Tiomkin's music for THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, but there is no doubt that Jerome Moross deserved the Oscar for one of the most celebrated and beloved scores ever written for a film. The film may not quite be the classic that Wyler had envisioned, but the characterizations are energetic and involving as they present a story of change and turmoil in a land of larger-than-life adventures. It goes without saying that Franz Planer's specious cinematography is utterly magnificent.

You have written a passionate and authoritative piece here Kevin, and I much enjoy the hands on approach to Wyler's central role here! Superb writing!

FlickChick said...

Very nice post, Kevin - and you are absolutely right that Wyler's films do get better with age. The mark of a real artist, don't you think?

Kevin Deany said...

Sam, you and I are both film music fans, so we tend to take this more seriously than a lot of people. I like quite a bit of Tiomkin, but don't care much for his work on "Old Man and the Sea."

Based on the film's production, it's a miracle the film turned out as good as it did. Thank you for your kind words.

CW, I don't recall that about the AFI, but it doesn't surprise me. I think the film plays very well today. The almost three-hour running time flies by, and Peck's non-violence stance probably plays better today than 1958 audiences used to shoot-em-ups. Thank you for writing.

P.S. Don't know how anyone can get tired of the Jeromre Moross score. I may have to have a few words with the hubby.

Silver Screenings said...

Wow! I had no idea that the film barely broke even! I'm surprised to hear it.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I agree that THE BIG COUNTRY improves with additional viewings. Burl Ives steals the movie for me. Loved your background info--I never picked up on the fact that Donald Hamilton was "the" Donald Hamilton of Matt Helm fame.

John/24Frames said...


You did a fine job here. For me, Burl Ives is a real highlight. To tell the truth, while I like the film I find it overblown. It's a small story, a battle over water rights, that has been done over and over again. Wyler blew it up on a large scale (Technirama) with admittedly excellent cinematography and a big cast. But scrap all that away and you still have a typical tale that has been repeated many times over and given here a needlessly large scale production. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed watching the film (the blu-ray is superb)but overall I don't believe it to be the great film Wyler wanted it to be. None of this takes away from your excellent background information and overall presentation.

John/24Frames said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kevin Deany said...

FlickChick, you are absolutely right.

Silverscreenings, with that cast, one would think it would be more of a hit. But $4 million was a heady sum in 1958 dollars, and despite the number of people who went to see it, it wssn't enough.

Rick, another good western based on a Donald Hamilton novel is "The Violent Men" with Glenn Ford and Edward G. Robinson. A terrific writer.

Johm, thank you for your insightful comments. Can't disagree with you. What I liked are the touches, like Simmons taking a long, long time, almost 45 seconds of silence, in deciding to sell the Big Muddy to Peck. I love the score so much that it ups the ante for me.

I only approved one of your comments, since they were both similiar, but they both published. Gotta love Blogger

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, you did an admirable job of covering one of only two Westerns Wyler made after becoming a "name director." After making so many Westerns early in his career--most of them quickie potboilers--he must have been sick of directing them, or maybe the process was so familiar that it didn't offer a sufficient challenge. That makes it especially interesting that the two Westerns he did direct seem purposely to diverge from the standard example of the genre. When you say that everything about "The Big Country" is BIG, you practically summmed up the whole movie. Maybe Wyler was already moving, at least in his mind, toward the epic approach he would take in his next film, "Ben-Hur."

You were right to emphasize two things about this picture that especially stand out for me. One is Burl Ives, one of the least experienced members of that fantastic cast, who really does steal all his scenes. His Oscar competition that year was weak. Still, I'm sure you're right that Academy voters were also thinking of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" when voting for him. It's amazing that he came practically from out of nowhere to give two such tremendous performances in a single year.

The other thing about the movie that sticks in my mind is the music score you so rightly praise. I sometimes watch just the opening of the movie to hear that music played over those images of the wagon traveling over that vast screen. The downside is that I can't get the theme out of my head for days!

Kevin Deany said...

Many thanks, R.D. for organizing the Wyler blogathon. I've really enjoyed reading the many fine entries.

Yes, I too was surprised at the weak entries for Best Supporting Actor that year. And you're right about not getting that music out of one's head. I'm experiencing that right now.

Classicfilmboy said...

Hi Kevin, I need to see this again ... I've only seen it once and everyone says it improves with age. Not to say I don't like it -- I like it a lot, but it's time for a repeat viewing. Excellent post!

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin, "The Big Country" has grown on me over the years and now I'm going to view it again to re-listen to the score. You also remind me that Burl Ives' career rebounded in a big way the late '50s. I'd forgotten he won an Oscar for this film but he did, indeed, stand out in a very strong cast.

Judy said...

Kevin, I've just watched this movie and really enjoyed your posting - must agree that Moross' score is fantastic and will be on my mind for days, and the sweeping, Technicolor landscapes are amazing. I like your point about the way the camera keeps pulling back to show how small the figures are in that landscape, especially during the fight scene between Peck and Heston. I also like Burl Ives.

However, must admit I did feel some of it gets a bit soapy and overblown, and I have also seen many similar stories, as John mentioned in his comment - I wonder if this film has been copied a lot since, and had greater freshness at the time? I was also a bit sad that we never see what happens to Heston and Baker at the end - by that time he has stood up to the Major and proved himself, so shouldn't he get a happy ending too?! Anyway, this is a wonderful review and I'm glad to have been spurred on to see the film!

Karen said...

I really enjoyed your write-up, Kevin -- I saw the first half of it not long ago, but never the whole film. Still, if it's a western for people who don't like westerns, it's for me! Loved that line of Burl Ives to his son, BTW -- talk about cold-blooded!

Dawn said...

I loved Gregory Peck's character, who was so different from the men of the West, all who used violence to solve their problems. His secret fight with Charleton Heston, making him swear to keep quiet regardless of the outcome, impressed me very much.

Thank you for your wonderful post.

Kevin Deany said...

Brian: Hope you get the chance to see it again. It had been a while since I last saw it and I forgot how good much of it is.

Lady Eve, yes, Burl Ives is great in it. Like I said, his character is a mean, ornery cuss, but I did feel sympathetic towards him. Ives liked working with Wyler and was one of the few cast members not emotionally scarred by the filming of "The Big Country."

Judy, I know what you mean by it being a little soapy, but I think that is why some people who normally don't like westerns would like it. Hmmm, I have a feeling Heston and Baker may wind up together. He did become a different man from what he was in the beginning.

Karen, I don't have kids, but if I did, that is one line I would never use. But Ives delivers it with a great deal of relish.

Dawn, that's a great scene and one of the highlights of the movie.

Thank you, everyone, for writing.

Laura said...

Hi Kevin,

I'm catching up on blog reading after a vacation and really enjoyed your post. I am very fond of this movie, which I've always thought of as a big, juicy novel -- and I wanted to keep turning the pages at the end! As noted in another comment above, I particularly wanted to see what happened to Steve and Pat. Steve was my favorite character in the entire movie -- a really different kind of role for Heston.

I completely agree with you about the Copland-esque score by Moross. It's fantastic! Although I did get a little tired of it when my husband was arranging it for a trombone group to play. He had the pleasure of corresponding with the composer's daughter about the music, and she even sent him a short biographical DVD about her father. That was a real treat for people like us who are such fans of the music.

Thanks for a very enjoyable and informative post.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Well, being an Arizonan, and of course, we ARE the Real West here, "The Big Country" is, in my opinion, the BEST. Not to short change movies like Lonesome Dove or many other Westerns, The Big Country had "Character". Filmed near Stockton, CA, away from civilization, it truly looked like the real West that I grew up with. My father, and the others before him was a cattle rancher and water was always an ignition point when it involved other ranchers fighting for the right to water their beeves. My dad had a running creek and he shared with the other ranchers so there was never a calamity like between the Terrell's and the Hennesey's! The character of the film and the way Peck, Heston, Simmons, Conners and of course, Rufus worked together made I consider one the the finest Westerns ever made. I watch it often and I have the "original" soundtrack recording bought many years ago and to this day it sounds very good; all 42 tracks. They just do not make Westerns anymore like they did in the 50's and 60's! So, speaking as a true Westerner, The Big Country IS The Big Country of all Westerns!!

Kevin Deany said...

Anonymous, thank you so much for your insightful comments. The 1950s is probably my favorite decades for westerns as well. There's a site called 50 Westerns from the 50s that I visit on a regular basis. Thanks for stopping by.

markfairboy said...

can anyone give me info about the style and make of the great hat peck wore in this film.

Jan Noble said...

I recognized the terrain the first time I saw The Big Country because I live in the heart of it. I live in Copperopolis and drive highway 4 and 26 Mile Road to Oakdale everyday to work, and pass by the Orvis ranch where much of the movie was filmed. I'm pretty sure I have found the Big Muddy. I love the vistas of the mountain ranges (Sierra) in the movie because that's the exact scenic view that I
see every day as I'm driving home.