The Big Country is an epic (or should I say “big”) movie on every scale. It was directed by William Wyler, one of the biggest directors ever. It stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives, some of the biggest actors of the 1950s. Opening titles were by Saul Bass, the best in the business. It was shot in the wide open spaces of the Western United States in the beautiful widescreen format. Everything about it is huge. Except the story. It can’t quite live up to the epic scale of the rest of the film.
Gregory Peck plays James McKay, a successful sea captain who travels to the Wild West to be with his fiancée Patricia (Caroll Baker). She lives on a huge, sprawling ranch with her father, the Major (Charles Bickford). He’s in the middle of a blood feud with a less-polished and civilized rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives in an Oscar-winning performance). In the middle of the two ranches lies Big Muddy, a big chunk of land with the only flowing water on it owned by local schoolmarm Julie (Jean Simmons). It's not much of a ranch these days, but both factions want to purchase it so they can force the others off the water and thus ruin their enemies.
Not only is it a big country, but its a hard one too, as McKay finds out from the start when he’s attacked by the Hannassey brothers on his way to the Major’s ranch. They halt his carriage, drag him around by ropes, and shoot his hat. Patricia is dismayed when McKay refuses to fight back and takes her rifle from her. She’s downright outraged when he lets the head hired hand Steve (Charlton Heston) call him "yellow" for his unwillingness to get into a fight with him.
In a scene that pretty well works as the film's theme, McKay refuses to attempt riding a wild, bucking horse even when the entire ranch wants him to, but later when nobody’s looking, he tames the beast by riding it over and over. Getting back on again no matter how many times he gets bucked off until the horse finally calms down. A man’s got pride you see, but in himself without caring what others think. And it may be a wild country, but violence is no answer. It all comes down about how you’d expect, with only a couple of surprises. The war between the families escalates with McKay playing the peaceful middle, and erupts in a final, bloody battle that ultimately proves that violence never wins. Not exactly a novel concept, but an interesting one to be found in a western made in the 1950s.
The acting is wonderful across the board. Simmons is a delight as the school teacher who ain't afraid to go head to head with anybody and Ives gives more depth to a villain that ought to be nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. Wyler gets incredible use out of the widescreen format. He shoots those big, flat vistas in beautiful long shots that must have been breathtaking on the big screen. About halfway in, there is a fight scene between McKay and Steve and Wyler mostly shoots it in long shots, allowing the land to nearly swallow them up. It's as if he’s saying that these singular battles between two men mean nothing up against this Earth that will be here long after those two are nothing but dust.
It's the sort of film that has multiple scenes with characters standing on big porches looking wistful just before the sunsets, on what photographers call the "magic hour." It doesn’t make a lot of plot sense but it sure looks beautiful. The Big Country is a good movie with some fine performances and stunning scenery. Its story is pretty standard stuff and its tone is very classic western.
Video quality is excellent. The back cover to this Kino Lorber Blu-ray disk says it was newly remastered in HD but it gives no further details. It looks gorgeous. I didn’t notice any scratches or digital flaws. The depth of field is stunning, showing off the big scenery and panoramic views. Colors and blacks look crisp. Audio likewise sounds terrific, especially the Oscar-nominated score by Jerome Moross.
For its 60th anniversary, Kino Lorber has spared no expense on the extras. There’s an informative commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling; a really interesting documentary on William Wyler; outtakes from a Wyler documentary featuring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, and Billy Wilder; plus interviews with various family members of Peck, Heston, and Wyler; short featurettes; trailers; tv spots; and animated image galleries.
If you like classic westerns, stunning vistas, or this film, this new anniversary edition from Kino Lorber is a fantastic edition to your collection.
The Big Country will be released on June 5, 2018.