Sparked by a rich, pulsating score by Jerome Moross, The Big Country is William Wyler’s heartfelt Cold War allegory, set in the Old West, depicting the murderous feud between adjacent ranchers Major Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey, characters based on U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The somber, engrossing film adapts David Hamilton’s serialized Ambush at Blanco Canyon.
Wyler, who won Japan’s Kinema Junpo Award for the year’s best foreign-language film, expertly balances two strategies, one visual and the other philosophical and psychological, achieving a fine cumulative result. The former leans heavily on scenes deep in the night and on long-shots, in either case to depict humans as dots or obscured figures against the panoramic landscapes—sacrifices, if you will, to the passage of time. The latter encapsulates another, perhaps even more intriguing theme: competing cultural notions of integrity. A quiet, peaceable stranger to the West, retired New England ship’s captain Jim McKay (Gregory Peck, wonderful—especially while McKay is shown falling in love with the local schoolmarm) pursues a code of personal conduct that appears “unmanly” and cowardly to most Westerners. (Wyler does not permit Peck to employ the “unctuous nobility” (Sarris) that would so damage his performance in Robert Mulligan’s odious, imbecilic, by-default-racist To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.) Wyler’s team of writers—James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder, Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler—and Wyler, himself, are remarkably burrowing in unearthing rationalizations by which different characters justify their bellicose and confrontational behaviors: rationalizations they have long since codified into pointed and pervasive outlooks. This is one American film that viewers may feel compelled to turn as a looking-glass into their own beliefs and self-justifications.
We never do learn the elusive source of dispute between the Terrills and the Hannasseys; rather, we see the current battleground of that dispute: water rights, for cattle, on a patch of land bordering both ranches. As with Otto Preminger’s staggering Anatomy of a Murder the following year, the Cold War made possible such ambiguity and irresolution in serious Hollywood entertainments; audiences did not need all “the dots,” nor the means to connect what dots there were.
Some, however, find The Big Country facile, thin and inflated, and indeed its nearly three-hour length and eventual string of anti-climaxes defeat the viewer’s interest and involvement. But its intelligence is considerable, and some of the acting—by Peck, who also co-produced, Jean Simmons, who gives the film’s finest performance, Carroll Baker and Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his Rufus Hannassey—is excellent. Regrettably, Charles Bickford is a bore as Maj. Terrill, Charlton Heston is close to ridiculous as swaggering Terrill ranch foreman Steve Leech, and Chuck Connors is ridiculous as Hannassey’s worthless son, Buck.
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