Take a Drink: for sweeping views of the desert plains
Take a Drink: each time Gregory Peck turns down a chance to “prove” himself to others
Do a Shot: each time Chuck Connors pulls a dick move in front of the ladies
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –
James McKay (Gregory Peck) is a retired Sea Captain who moves to the West to marry the daughter of wealthy rancher Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). On his first day, he encounters a group of rowdy cowboys working for neighboring rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). Hannassey and Bickford are in the middle of a feud that is threatening to turn violent. Owing to his refusal to engage in a series of confrontations, McKay finds himself dubbed a coward. McKay is unconcerned with what others think of him, a trait that frustrates both sides. As the range war turns violent, McKay is drawn into the conflict, and as he struggles to remain neutral he tries to broker peace, which may come at a difficult price.
The late 1950s was the absolute peak of the public’s fascination with the American West, and at the time most films conveyed the time period in shades of black and white. The Big Country dared to challenge this nostalgic, clean-cut viewpoint. Some critics noted similarities between the war between the two Ranch families and the Cold War conflict between the East and West (particularly as in both cases, the reasons for the tensions are vague and ultimately unimportant. Whether this was an intentional choice is unknown, but the themes are there, and are heavily explored. In a world where violent demonstrations of force were commonplace as a way to gain power, McKay stands as the strongest man. This is not because he is the best fighter, or the fastest draw, or the “manliest” in any particular way. He is strong because he remains confident in his own abilities while steadfastly refusing to submit to a vain show of force.
Gregory Peck was the perfect choice for this film, as a committed real-life pacifist, he was able to invest himself personally in the role. The stellar cast of supporting performers bolster the film’s impact. Actress Jean Simmons plays a school teacher who owns a tract of land which includes the largest waterway in the area. Her character is embattled as both ranchers jockey constantly for her favor, attempting to purchase the land and to prevent the other from using it. Charlton Heston plays Steve Leech, a jealous ranch hand who has feelings for McKay’s fiancé (his boss’s daughter). Burl Ives won an Academy Award for his strikingly grizzled performance. Those familiar with Ives only as The Snowman in the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special should see this as a decidedly un-family friendly contrast.
Director William Wyler (Ben Hur, Roman Holiday) was a filmmaker with a true understanding of scope. His films, no matter how big or small, made a powerful impact. Together with cinematographer Franz Planer, The Big Country takes full advantage of the benefits of a wide-angle lens. Indeed, the vast majority of scenes are shot outside, in glamorous technicolor.