Friday, August 2

The Big Country: Favorite Movie #9

1958 Western
From United Artists
Directed by William Wyler

Gregory Peck
Jean Simmons
Carroll Baker
Charlton Heston
Burl Ives
Charles Bickford
Alfonso Bedoya
Chuck Connors

Now into single digits for my 50 Favorite Films.  Here we are with number 9, my favorite western of all time.  I think it's been established that I love westerns but I have a scant few in my 50 favorites.  But here we are with the one I consider to be the best of them all.  I read once that this is the western for people who really don't like westerns.  It has no saloons, no sheriffs, no shootouts at sundown.  What The Big Country does have is big class.

Part of that class comes from a most remarkable cast.  Burl Ives won a supporting Oscar for his role.  Longtime character actor Charles Bickford is perfection.  Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya gives a brightly comic performance.  Chuck Connors has never been as good in such an important film.  Charlton Heston makes the most in a supporting role as does Carroll Baker.  Most of all, there are two of my favorite actors ever, Gregory Peck and Jean SimmonsThe latter two, along with Bedoya, are the only decent characters in a film of not bad guys, per se, but just not very nice people. 

The Big Country can also count among its many virtues its leader, director William Wyler.  He was a tough hombre... shrewd, meticulous, painstaking in his methods.  His imperious manner could keep studio executives at bay and could cut just about any actor down to size and still get out of them the exact performance he had envisioned.  But those actors seemed to come back for more.  Why else would a firebrand like Bette Davis work for Wyler three times (and in three of her best roles) in Jezebel, The Letter and The Little Foxes?  Wyler was also the director of such classics as The Best Years of Our Lives, Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Miniver, The Detective Story, Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion and Funny Girl.

Why else would an established star like Charlton Heston accept a co-starring role as the rich rancher's foreman (as an unpleasant person, no less) except to work for the mighty director?  And of course both would go on to great acclaim the following year in the multi-honored Ben-Hur

So yes, Wyler's attachment to the project meant a lot of good things for The Big Country.  Most of all, in the end, it brought the film prestige.  He and the cast would keep the film from being thought of as just another western.  It had something to say beyond just being a Saturday morning shoot-'em-up.  It didn't always go so well, however.  Here's why:

The plot was about a feud and oddly enough Wyler and the generally amenable Peck feuded throughout the production and were soured on one another for a few years afterward.  They had worked together before, of course, in Roman Holiday and by all accounts, that was a happy production.  In 1957 they were to be director and star of a film that utlimately didn't get off the ground.  Since both of them then had some time on their hands, they figured why not see if we can find something else to do.

A mutual friend had a western script lying around and no one was paying much attention to it.   It was based on a serialized magazine story called Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton. Marlon Brando's name was bandied about for the Peck role but nothing came of it.  So Peck and Wyler decided this would be the film to make; it could be done quickly, they thought, and with a minimum of locations.

Director William Wyler and his impressive cast

For a number of reasons it was decided that Peck would share producer credits and here's where the trouble began brewing.  It would be the first time he had done so.  His duties were perhaps of lesser importance than Wyler's, who also produced, and one of them dealt with the animals to be used.  In a brief cattle scene, Peck wanted 4000 cows and Wyler covertly overruled him with 400.  The incident set an ominous tone.

Then there was what is famously called The Buckboard Scene, discussed over the years at Hollywood parties because of the vitriol that arose from it.  In the early scenes, Peck, an easterner involved in a family shipping line, comes west (it is never said exactly where) to the arms of his fiancee, Carroll Baker, who is waiting for him at her friend Jean Simmons' house in town.  Soon Peck and Baker are in a buckboard on the way to the family ranch.  Along the way they are acosted by a playful bully, Chuck Connors, and his ragtag buddies.  With horses at high speed and Baker grabbing a whip and fighting off the houligans, and one of the boys jumping from his horse onto the backs of the buckboard team and then Peck being yanked from the buckboard and lassoed and teased, it was an exciting scene. 

Peck saw the rushes and didn't like how he looked.  He wanted to shoot it again.  It was the actor speaking, not the producer.  But the producer got riled because no one was taking him seriously.  Wyler put him off until they were about to leave the location and then he told Peck not to worry, that he would cut the scene in such a way as to not show the actor at his handsome best.

Peck apparently was so incensed that he did something very un-Peckish.  He walked off the set, vowing not to return.  Thankfully most of the movie had already been in the can.  The film ended with the two not speaking to one another.  Their rift lasted for a few years and then they made up.

One criticism of the film has always been its slight story.  I agree with the fact but not the judgment.  Most western plots, frankly, are a little thin.  But I offer that out of these slight stories often come heroic men and women carving out a part of our country's history and becoming better (or worse) people in the process.  And after all, cinematically, what could be more American than a western? 

In The Big Country, at face value, it looks like we're dealing with a feud over water rights.  As Peck's character says at one point... this is nothing more than a personal feud between two selfish, ruthless, vicious old men.  But the film is something more.  It is about classes, the haves and have-nots.  It dealt with manliness, cowardice, bullying, honor, greed, integrity, purpose and a sense of morality.  The Big Country served up some big issues, all the while dressing them up in a dramatic story with deft touches of comedy.

Bickford is a rich rancher, steely and self-contained, with a daughter (Baker) who is spoiled and high-strung, and barely knows the man who has upended his life for her.  She doesn't much understand him; she actually does not possess the tools to do so.  Together, she and her father loathe their poor, dirty neighbors, headed by Ives and his sons, including Connors.  In one scene, Connors walks into a room and says to Ives, you want me, Pa?  And Ives replies, I did before you were born.

Simmons says a line I have always loved and have, in fact, tried hard to use when it has seemed appropriate.  Around the same time, Simmons' character realizes she loves Peck at the same time Baker's character realizes she doesn't.  Both women are sitting on the front porch of Baker's home with the latter lamenting how Peck should have done this or done that differently if he wanted a relationship with her and Simmons churps, how many times does a man have to win you?  Inspired.

Both families need a watering hole for their cattle and the one that's most handy is owned by Simmons, The Big Muddy. She is willing to let both families make use of it but they fight with one another so much that one easily concludes this will not end well. And it doesn't.

Burl Ives deserved his Oscar (although we will discuss this again with another of my favorite films) as the blustery Rufus Hannassy.  Peck recommended the larger-than-life balladeer for the role and Ives brought The Big Country exactly the right spirit of a powerful man persecuted by a rich rancher.  While both men were despicable characters, it was the rich man, the wily one, who was the nastier of the two.  Deep down, Hannassy at least had a shred of decency. 

I had two favorite scenes.  One involves Ives as he barges into the rich man's home during a la-di-dah party.  Ives delivers a magnificent, fiery speech, rich in western idiom, which also defines the plot of the film.  If one could look at a single scene (which he apparently got in one take) that got a man his Oscar, this is it.

My second favorite scene comes at the end, this time on the front porch of the Hannasseys.  Ives has instructed Connors to bring Simmons (forcibly if necessary) to their compound in Blanco Canyon.  (Remember the author's title of his book from above and I think you've got it.)  They are going to get her to sign over the deed to The Big Muddy not knowing she has already sold it to Peck.

Peck and Bedoya arrive to collect Simmons at any cost.  And it will be costly indeed.  Connors is electric as the creepy admirer of Simmons and none more so than during an attempted rape scene.  And then there's the insults, the jockeying for position, the tension involving Ives, Connors, Simmons and Peck on that porch that always gets me revved up.  And I know what's coming.  I greatly admire the writing and the acting in this wonderful scene.

Everything about The Big Country is, well, big.  They must say big 800 times.  The length is long at 165 minutes but not as long as the 400 they filmed.  The landscape is big and Franz Planer's Technirama cameras stunningly capture various California locations.  Red Rock Canyon State Park stood in for Blanco Canyon.  Most impressive is the big western, Oscar-nominated score by Jerome Moress, played throughout the film but so superb during the opening credits.  I like it so much that I have it downloaded to my phone.

I just realized two things while writing this post.  One is that Alfonso Bedoya, so good as the hired hand Ramon who switches loyalties to Peck's character, died before the film was released.  I may have known that once, but I certainly forgot.  He was one of several Mexican character actors who attracted my attention.

Another thing that occurred to me is this:  although we are getting down to it on my 50 Favorite Films and this one is number nine, there are three films yet to come that star three actors from The Big Country... Peck, Ives and Heston.  I wonder if you can guess what they are.

Briefly, Robert Francis

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