Friday, September 12, 2014

William Wyler’s ‘The Big Country’: Why it endures

By Steve Crum
From start to finish, director William Wyler languishes on expansive vistas through widescreen lens. The Big Country is about just that—a big country, and its proud, angry, dangerous, childish denizens. These are cowboys living by their own shared creed, a Western “Code” perpetuated and probably created by Hollywood filmmakers and the dime novels preceding them. 
Land is the dominant theme, played out by barons who want each other’s property, at least the water rights in between. More than that, both want their counterpart killed. Burly Burl Ives earned an Oscar as Rufus Hannassey, a similar patriarch persona he portrayed the same 1958 year as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ives’ Rufus chews scenery and steals scenes. The always watchable Charles Bickford is his stern adversary, Maj. Henry Terrill. 
The film’s climax is a long built-up rifle/shotgun fight between the two that cuts away before the conclusion. Then, from a high positioned camera, it appears both have died with Hannassey lying on top of Terrill, sprawled on canyon rocks. The decades-old feud finally ends with whimperless bangs. 
By then, there has been a lengthy slug out over machismo between the characters played by Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. A pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors, as Rufus’ thug son, has been killed—by his Pa, no less. Peck’s James McKay has broken a horse that no one could break. Loyalties have been tested, abandoned, and replaced.

A dominant, driving force that both enhances and propels the action is Jerome Moross’ terrific, Oscar-nominated score that could stand alone as a memorable concert piece. In fact, its main theme been a staple of concert hall orchestras for decades. 
The Big Country is all about power and avenging, skillfully told in Wyler’s frequent long distance and medium shots that are always landscape wide, imbued in granite-hued Technicolor.  

THE BIG COUNTRY, released in 1958, 165 minutes. Directed by William Wyler; Cinematography by Franz F. Planer. Principal cast: Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Carroll Baker.
Burl Ives is awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar: 

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