K nown for their collaboration on the classic Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck and director William Wyler teamed up once more in 1958 not just as actor/director, but as co-producers for the sprawling western The Big Country. Humble ship captain Jim McKay (Peck) arrives in the Old West with his fiancée, Patricia (Carroll Baker), and finds himself caught in the middle of a turf war between her respected father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), and the patriarch of a lower, angrier ranching clan, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). Juggling romance, family drama, and fish-out-of-water elements, the film sometimes stretches itself a tad thin, but ultimately succeeds in remaining cohesive and comprehensive. Already a fan, I delighted in seeing such a clear-looking release with an abundance of extras.
While the story contains plenty of excitement, the performances and camera work outshine. In fact, both Peck and Wyler were dissatisfied with the script, according to interviews included among the extras. The screenplay continued to be amended throughout the entire shoot. Growing tensions over this fact, as well as accumulating differences in creative license, contributed to a stressful atmosphere on set which has a convenient spillover effect on the film. None of the characters are at ease with one another, least of all Peck’s McKay and the Terrill ranch foreman, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston). Although working for the same side, Leech’s affections for Patricia are clear, and hostility brews internally almost more than threats from the outside. Peck’s restrained and dignified performance (a common reason for his casting in anything) perfectly conflicts with Heston’s equally restrained but far more disdainful and angsty attitude. The standout, however, is Burl Ives, whose inimitable voice and speaking style turn his already wonderfully written dialogue into Whitman-esque poetry.
Shot in California’s Red Rock Canyon Park and Sierra foothills, the landscape provides a vibrant and ponderous background for such an epic story. Cinematographer Franz F. Planer provides every horizon with luminescent backlight, emblazoning the gorgeous landscape. Wyler’s masterful eye for composition stands as his greatest strength as a director, and a considerable number of shots are wide, even on important action, to emphasize the endless bounty of America’s west and to downplay the honor in violence and guerilla law. One of the film’s only weaknesses is in the editing. Some sequences go on too long, resulting in an unwieldy running time. Additionally, Wyler resorts to jump cuts when he can’t get the long takes he wants. One notable example is in a wide pan of Gregory Peck leaning over a balcony, viewing cattle on the large ranch property. Wyler couldn’t get enough cattle for the shot, nor could he orchestrate a trick where the cattle he did have are relocated to the other side of the frame to give the illusion that there are more. So instead, he just breaks the pan into two shots via a jarring jump-cut.
Other fine qualities are the Oscar nominated score by Jerome Moross, which stands out as quintessentially Western. And a plus for me on any film, Saul Bass does the opening titles. The Big Country has flaws, but also exudes a powerful spirit and a multitude of strengths, making the slip-ups are more than forgivable. | Nic Champion