|The Big Country|
Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Produced by||Gregory Peck|
|Written by||James R. Webb|
|Based on||Ambush at Blanco Canyon|
1957 The Saturday Evening Post
by Donald Hamilton
|Music by||Jerome Moross|
|Cinematography||Franz F. Planer, ASC|
|Edited by||Robert Belcher|
Robert Swink (sup)
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Box office||$3.5 million (US and Canada rentals)|
The Big Country is a 1958 American Technicolor epic Western film directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives filmed in Technirama. The supporting cast features Charles Bickford and Chuck Connors. The picture was based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton. and was co-produced by Wyler and Peck. The opening title sequence was created by Saul Bass. The film is one of the very few pictures in which Heston plays a major supporting role instead of the lead.
Former sailor James McKay (Gregory Peck) travels to the American West to join his fiancée Patricia (Carroll Baker) at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), referred to by all as "The Major." After a meeting with Patricia's friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), McKay and Patricia are accosted by a group of drunks led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), the son of the Major's ardent and implacable enemy Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). In spite of the harassment and mockery, McKay surprises Patricia by standing his ground and allowing the group to leave without further incident.
The next morning, McKay declines an invitation from the Major's foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) to ride an indomitable bronco stallion named "Old Thunder". McKay then brings a pair of dueling pistols to the Major as a gift. When the Major learns of Buck's pestering of his daughter and future son-in-law, he gathers his men and goes to raid the Hannassey ranch despite McKay's attempts to defuse the situation. The Major's group finds neither Rufus nor Buck, so they settle for terrorizing the Hannassey women and children, as well as capturing and punishing the members of Buck's posse. Meanwhile, McKay privately tames and rides Old Thunder after many unsuccessful attempts, and swears his only witness, the ranch hand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya), to secrecy.
A gala is held on the Terrill ranch in honor of Patricia's upcoming wedding. At the height of the festivities, an armed Rufus crashes the party and accuses the Major of hypocrisy. The next day, McKay secretly goes to Maragon's ranch, known as the "Big Muddy". The Big Muddy's territory is the location of the town's only nearby river, and as such it is a vital source of water for both the Terrill and Hannassey cattle during times of drought. McKay persuades Maragon to sell the ranch to him in the hopes of both securing a gift for Patricia and ending the conflict by continuing Maragon's policy of unrestricted access to the river. McKay is found and returned to town by a search party led by Leech. Leech brands McKay a liar when McKay explains he was never in danger, but McKay again refuses to be goaded into a fight, which disappoints Patricia enough to make the pair reconsider their engagement. The next morning, Maragon tells Patricia of McKay's purchase of the Big Muddy for her, which initially convinces her to attempt to make amends with McKay. However, when she learns of McKay's plan to allow the Hannasseys equal access to the water, she leaves.
Wanting to lure the Major into an ambush in the canyon leading to his homestead, Rufus takes Maragon hostage. Although McKay personally promises Rufus equal access to the water, he finds himself in a clash with Buck, which is ultimately settled with a duel. Buck fires before the signal and grazes McKay's forehead. Buck's subsequent display of cowardice convinces McKay to spare Buck. The frustrated Buck snatches another gun from a nearby civilian, forcing Rufus to kill his son. Rufus goes to the canyon for a final confrontation with the Major and challenges him to a one-on-one showdown. Armed with rifles, the two old men advance and kill one another. McKay, along with Julie and Ramon, ride off to start a new life together.
Director William Wyler was known for shooting an exorbitant number of takes on his films, usually without explaining to the actors what to do differently except "[make it] better," and this one was no exception. Many of the actors, including Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker, were so traumatized by his directing style that they refused to speak about the experience for years. Simmons later said they constantly received rewrites for the script, making acting extremely difficult. Gregory Peck and Wyler, who were good friends, fought constantly on the set and had a falling out for three years, although they later reconciled. Wyler and Charles Bickford also clashed, as they had done thirty years previously on the production of his 1929 film Hell's Heroes. Burl Ives, however, claimed to have enjoyed making the film.
Before principal photography was complete, Wyler left for Rome to start work on Ben-Hur, delegating creation of the final scenes involving McKay and Julie to his assistant Robert Swink, whose resulting scenes pleased Wyler so much that he wrote Swink a letter stating: "I can't begin to tell you how pleased I am with the new ending... The shots you made are complete perfection."
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in a negative review that "for all this film's mighty pretensions, it does not get far beneath the skin of its conventional Western situation and its stock Western characters. It skims across standard complications and ends on a platitude. Peace is a pious precept but fightin' is more excitin'. That's what it proves."Variety called the film "one of the best photography jobs of the year," with a "serviceable, adult" storyline "which should find favor with audiences of all tastes."Harrison's Reports declared it "a first-rate super-western, beautifully photographed in the Technirama anamorphic process and Technicolor. It is a long picture, perhaps too long for what the story has to offer, but there is never a dull moment from start to finish and it holds one's interest tightly throughout."Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "super stuff. Franz Planer's photography of Texas is downright awe-inspiring, the characters are solid, the story line firm, the playing first-rate, the music more than dashing in this nearly three-hour tale which should delight everybody."
John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote, "Of those involved in this massive enterprise, Mr. Bickford and Mr. Ives are the most commendable as they whoop and snort about the sagebrush. But even they are hardly credible types, and as for the rest of the cast, they can be set down as a rather wooden lot." Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times called the film "too self consciously 'epical' to be called great, but at its best, which is frequently, it's better than good."The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the picture's attempts to convey a message were for the most part "superficial and pedestrian," and found that "the pivotal character of McKay, played on a monotonously self-righteous note by Gregory Peck, never comes alive. It is mainly due to the power of the climactic canyon battle, and Burl Ives' interesting playing as Rufus, that this remains a not unsympathetic film, decorated pleasantly by Jean Simmons and with spirit by Carroll Baker."
The film was a big hit, being the second most popular movie in Britain in 1959. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently has an approval rating of 100% based on 11 reviews, with an average rating of 6.9/10.
Playmobil designed an entire cowboy line based on the architecture of the film.
The Blanco Canyon scenes were filmed in California's Red Rock Canyon State Park. The ranch and field scenes with greenery were filmed in the central California Sierra foothills near the town of Farmington.