Film Friday: William Wyler's 'The Big County' starring Gregory Peck & Jean Simmons

By Daniel S Levine,

There aren't that many films with titles that so perfectly describe them. The Big Country has the perfect title. It is a BIG Western, and that's not an understatement. However, it is as balanced as any other epic by mater director William Wyler. The Big Country is action packed, but filled with all the emotional, romantic intensity one should expect from Wyler. The audience is enveloped in the wide open landscapes, but that never overwhelms the characters.

The Big Country, which is based on Donald Hamilton's novel, is centered on the classic Western struggle between two ranchers over a sliver of land. Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), the richer of the two, and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives – who won an Oscar for this movie) are fighting over land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). Julie's “Big Muddy” is home to the major source of water for Terrill's cattle and Hannassey wants it to end Terrill's cattle business.

This is the drama that James McKay (Gregory Peck) has come into. James is engaged to marry Terrill's daughter, Patricia (Caroll Baker). James quickly sees a different side of Patricia than the one he fell in love with back East. She's easily influenced by her father and doesn't see how destructive this feud could be to the area. James comes to know Julie, convincing her to sell him the land in the hopes that he can temper the feud by continuing to allow them both access. However, the Hannassey clan doesn't see it that way, thinking that James is acting on behalf of his future father-in-law and tempers flare again.

Like many great Westerns before it, The Big Country questions the morality of classical Western ideals. Of all these that the film takes head on is what it means to 'be a man.' James' masculinity is constantly questioned by both sides of the feud. Hannassey's sons think he is an easy target just because he comes from the East. Terrill's right hand man, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), feels that he is unworthy to join the family for the same reason. Steve also despises James because he has loved Patricia much longer than James has. That sets up an intense, stunning fist fight between the two men that lasts hours.

Wyler had actually started his career directing Westerns, but by the mid-1950s he was better known for his popular, well-acted dramas like the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress. His work still proved to be popular in the 1950s, particularly with Roman Holiday and Friendly Persuasion. The Big Country was a pivotal moment in Wyler's career, since it introduced him to Charlton Heston and the two would make Ben-Hur the following year. The Big Country proved that Wyler could make his films lengthy epics without taking the personal, human element that makes his films great. The strong characters never get lost in the beautiful, wide vistas of the West. Even that wide shot of James and Steve fighting in the desert fails to minimize the stature of the drama.

When people think of the great Western directors from Hollywood, we think of men like John Ford or Howard Hawks (who really only directed three Westerns, but wow are they good) and forget that a director like Wyler even made Westerns. Wyler was of the time when directors were expected to dabble in every genre and he proved his versatility with films like The Big Country, which really is one of the great Westerns.

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