The Big Country: For People Who Don’t Like Cowboy Movies

Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, "The Big Country"Guest blogger Victoria Balloon writes:

Some people refuse to watch Westerns on the grounds that the predictable parade of horses, gunfights and tumbleweeds makes them ultimately shallow and boring. They are missing out; there were Westerns made in the 1950s that balanced action with internal conflict and embraced moral ambiguity, and these films are a far cry from the shoot ‘em up variety. The Big Country (1958) was one of these and is a wonderful film for people who insist they don’t like Westerns.

The first element that sets this Western apart is its exploration of individual morality. Sea Captain James McKay, played by Gregory Peck, journeys west to reunite with fiancée Pat (Carroll Baker) and meet her father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). The Major has the young couple’s future planned out on his Texas cattle ranch, and his way of thinking — that might makes right, that only money and power have value — does not sit well with a self-determined, contemplative man like McKay.

McKay isn’t bothered that his ways seem strange to the people on the ranch, but when Pat agrees with them that McKay’s self-effacing attitude makes him appear weak and cowardly, McKay has to choose between the woman he loves and his own moral code.

The film certainly isn’t lacking in more typical Western action; alongside McKay’s personal conflict is the vicious feud between Maj. Terrill and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). Ostensibly over water rights to the Big Muddy, their fight is simply ego-fueled and petty, resembling class warfare between the haves and have-nots. By all outward appearances Terrill is an outstanding citizen, but Hannassey reminds him that it takes more than money and manners to make a gentleman.

However, this is no “horse opera,” and the second thing that sets this story apart is the multi-layered love interests. School teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), friend of Pat and owner of the Big Muddy, fends off the unwanted advances of Hannassey’s shiftless eldest son Buck (Chuck Connors). Ranch foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston article) is not pleased at the arrival of McKay, desiring Pat for himself. And there is the growing mutual admiration between Julie and McKay which ultimately causes him to risk his life to save her.

Such a grandly conceived film of epic scope requires skilled actors to support the story, and the cast of The Big Country delivers. Gregory Peck was at the top of his game, with hits such as Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). Seeking more control over the types of roles he played, he formed his own production company and shared the producer role with director William Wyler. The two had worked together previously on Roman Holiday (1953). Audiences loved to see Peck in solidly heroic roles; the part of Jim McKay seemed tailored to him — as it should, as Peck also helped adapt the script from the novel by Donald Hamilton.

Born in London, Jean Simmons had been in major British productions such as Black Narcissus (1947) and Hamlet (1948), making her a huge box office draw on both sides of the Atlantic. A Western might have seemed incongruous for her talents, but director Wyler said of her, “The first thing you look for is talent and this girl is full of it. She can play comedy and drama with equal facility.”

Nominated for her thumb sucking in Baby Doll, (1956) Warner Brothers viewed Carroll Baker as the next Marilyn Monroe. But between troubles with Warner Brothers and husband director Jack Garfein, she missed out on roles in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). She was pregnant while filming The Big Country, putting the already difficult shoot on a tight schedule.

Charlton Heston initially turned down his role; after the success of The Ten Commandments in 1956, he didn’t think the role of ranch foreman Leech was big enough. Still, working with Peck and Wyler would be a great experience. Undoubtedly it was worth it; Heston worked with Wyler the next year on Ben-Hur, which won eleven Oscars, including one for Heston.

1958 was a great year for Burl Ives. In addition to rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Big Country. Of the major actors on the set, he was one of the few who didn’t have a problem with director Wyler. “I found Willy delightful. I never got annoyed at him. I learned a helluva lot from him.”

Charles Bickford had also worked with Wyler before on a film called Hell’s Heroes (1929). (The film was remade several times, most notably in 1948 by John Ford and titled 3 Godfathers, starring John Wayne.) As prolific as his career was–Anna Christie (1930), The Plainsman (1936), and Duel in the Sun (1946), among others–it’s surprising that his name isn’t better known. Feisty and independent, his constant arguing with Louis B. Mayer got him blacklisted for a time. Age had not changed him; he argued with Wyler and eventually stormed off the set, returning only when Wyler threatened to report him to the Screen Actors Guild.

William Wyler had already won two of the three Academy Awards he would ultimately receive–Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Ben-Hur (1959)–when he teamed up with friend Peck to co-produce The Big Country. Like Peck, Wyler also sought more creative control, but ultimately, their experiences on the set cost the two men their friendship. Wyler’s diverse body of work is the result of a career that spanned 45 years, from 1925 to 1970.

Wyler’s use of cinematography and Jerome Moross’ Oscar-nominated score elevate the film above the typical Western. Wyler had just finished the anti-war Friendly Persuasion (1956) in which violent conflict is portrayed as something to be avoided but sometimes necessary. The Big Country goes one step further by portraying conflict as ultimately pointless. Wyler’s use of long shots and muffled sound during the fight between McKay and Leech as well as the final showdown between Terrill and Hannassey illustrates the insignificance of human conflict against the greater landscape. It is, after all, a big country — the petty feuds between men mean little in the wider scheme.

The story of the outsider trying to enter the group, receiving hard knocks, and ultimately becoming one of the group is nothing new in a Western. The Big Country reverses the theme and explores the results; McKay neither wants nor needs to become part of their violent ways, and he’s got the funny hat to prove it. His detachment from their concerns and questioning of their moral authority is ultimately what arouses Pat and Leech’s contempt for him, and McKay remains the outsider, by choice, throughout the entire film — not the kind of social non-conformity one expects to see in a 1950s film.

The Big Country contains action, drama, exquisite cinematography, and compelling characters big enough to convince anyone to take a second look at Westerns.  A great example of the epic films of the ’50s, it also has a director and cast at the peak of their creative prowess. Don’t let old assumptions cause you to miss this fun and insightful tale.

Now, catch the action of The Big Country with the theatrical trailer from 1958:

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Victoria Balloon is a writer, classic film enthusiast and pop-culture pundit. In addition to knitting small appliances, Victoria is currently involved in helping to bring back the Matinee at the Bijou TV series in an HD sequel to be hosted by Debbie Reynolds.

You can trek over to the Bijou Blog, where cowgirl wordsmith Victoria has even more to say about this epic yarn, a sagebrush saga just too big for one blog. And for another take on The Big Country, be sure to check out John McElwee’s comments over at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

To read our article about Gregory Peck the leading man of The Big Country follow this link: Gregory Peck: Leading Man in a Gray Flannel Suit

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  • Susan

    What an excellent tribute to an exquisite and often unappreciated film! The making of this unique movie experience deserves this intelligent and analytical treatment. This rare combination of talent produced one of the most interesting and beautiful movies of the 1950′s. In fact when watching The Big Country today, it’s plain to see that it hasn’t aged much. Graphic sex and violence that we see today wouldn’t make this a better movie, because it moves quickly, provides interesting western characters, and let’s us see great film makers at the heights of their careers. Thanks to Ms. Balloon for vividly recalling one of my favorite films. This is a first class review of a first class film.

  • Juanita Curtis

    Excellent review of a classic western film. I am not a great fan of the genre but this film is definitely one of the best. It combines a great story with fine acting and a director at the top of his game.

  • SPEEDbit

    True. This film is one of the best we also think. We also love the Clint Eastwood westerns. Great post. Thanks and keep blogging!

  • Ron

    A great film, I watch it often, no matter where I pick it up from.

  • Gary Vidmar

    You can’t say enough good things about the iconic Jerome Moross score for THE BIG COUNTRY, a genuine, lasting piece of American in and of itself.
    The new blu-ray of THE BIG COUNTRY has been remastered from the photochemical restoration performed by The Academy Film Archive and looks terrific!

  • WT

    Victoria Balloon hit the nail on the head. I’ve seen the ‘Big Country’ several times, and it is one of the BEST westerns that I’ve ever seen. The actors are well suited to the characters that they portray; the theme song was strong and moving; the settings were big like the movie’s name, and the direction was superb. I’ve always loved Jean Simmons’ work because whatever the part she has to play, she more than delivers. This movie was so good that I had hoped that it was worthy of a sequel.

  • Jerry

    I WISH TO ADD ANOTHER FILM, “THE BIG SKY”, sound acting, so multi-layered writing, and action when you least expect it. The writing is so above most other films, even non-westerns.

  • dalynn

    Good to know this film is appreciated by others – it and To Kill A Mockingbird are my favorite Gregory Peck movies and two of my favorite movie scores!

  • Ellen Urie

    This is one of the best western movies. I bought it several months ago & have watched it 3 times. It has an excellent story & perfect cast. It’s odd when you find out behind-the-scenes problems there were, such as those between Peck & the director. Gregory Peck was one of my favorite actors. I liked him in To Kill A Mockingbird, and many of the movies listed in the article. Too many to name. I have always been a western fan anyway!

  • Andrew

    One of my favorite westerns of all time. Just love that iconic Jerome Moross score for THE BIG COUNTRY as well as the rest of the soundtrack.
    Right up there is the score for “How the West Was Won”.

  • Jim

    “The Big Country” was on its’ way to becoming the best western of all time, but, IMHO, the ending was just a little too much over the top. However, it is still a great movie- beautifully filmed, edited, and acted. A great tribute to the magnificent technology of the unappreciated 1950s.

  • roger lynn

    A GREAT FILM,THE SCORE BY MR MOROSS WAS ONE OF THE BEST AND MR IVES SO DESERVED HIS OSCAR

  • Michael Oldfield

    Definitely one of my favourite westerns. It was certainly the best acting job that Chuck Connors ever did as the lecherous Buck Hennesey and that wide open country fist-fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston set a different direction for movie brawls. At the end, both men are gasping for breath and asking if the other has had enough.
    However, I cannot subscribe to the artsy theory put forward by some “deep thinking” film critics that The Big Country is a political allegory with
    Charles Bickford representing the heartless capitalist while Burl Ives represents the good-hearted leader of the Communist proletariat folks in Blanco Canyon. It is simply a good yarn and nothing more.

    • Noname

      Actually, one can. However, that is the communist/marxist/socialist baloney that forever is floating around. You can’t convince these “idiots” that they are trading capitalism for a worse way of living. “Massa’s Plantation”.

  • Raif D’Amico

    I have stated before that Big Country is one of my favorite movies and I love the music to the point that I bought the album and years later the CD.

  • DKW

    I’ve always felt that the film is good, but overblown for the story. The Classic score surpasses the film itself;They didn’t use the music in those Wells Fargo ads in the 70s’for nothing, and ANY Disneyland Annual Pass-Holder who walks into Frontierland would recognize the theme in a Heartbeat!!

  • Marvin Plevinsky

    One of my favorite character roles in this movie
    was Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya who played the
    ranch hand Ramon. Most movie buffs remember him as
    the bandito “Goldhat” who tried to rob Humphrey Bogart and friends(while posing as Federales/ mounted police) in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and said when asked to see their badges,
    “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”

  • Martin Stumacher

    I read Victoria Balloon’s blog with the Gregory Peck interview about The Big Country. It was fascinating. For me, it’s the soundtrack music that provides the foundation for the film’s scenes. With an exceptional cast and William Wyler’s direction, this film using the Hatfield-McCoy feud should have been considered high among the all-time greats.

  • Tom la Pare

    The Big Country just happens to be a western! The story could be set in the world of 2011 or in any other time or place! That’s why this story will never become stale or out dated!

  • DennyG

    I first saw this movie on the eve of the Iraq invasion. I was so wishing our country’s leaders were watching it too. Perhaps they could have caught the notion that shooting and fighting are NOT the only ways to deal with conflict!

  • max fraley

    I’m confident the majority of western film diehards would have
    THE BIG COUNTRY in their top ten of all time. Just about everything is right from direction to cast to music to all the production tools. An absolute classic.

  • chris

    The Big Country and Duel In The Sun…my favorite Gregory Peck movies.

  • rg

    Thanks for the background information on one of my all-time favorite movies. Even at age 12, when I say this picture in the theater in 1958, I picked up on the message. The music has been with me since then. You will never see that many good actors today in the same movie…who could afford to pay them.

  • E-HOOPER.com

    Spendid film and a timeless classic! I’m glad someone else has mentioned the soundtrack score, which is haunting and uplifting. The historic background strokes provided by the writer of this piece are invaluable. Thanks!

  • Bill in Sinton

    This was a great movie. Everyone in the cast was outstanding but I though Chuck Connors was great with an underrated performance.

    • noname

      Burl Ives wasn’t to shabby either.

      • Noname

        I forgot, “Ramon” ,what a study in character, and with some great “and important” lines.

  • Noname

    Maybe I am to picky,but some of the names in the “Big Country” are ,shall we say, silly. “The big muddy”? “Ladder Ranch”? I certainly would have chosen something a little less “silly”. That being said, I really like this movie.

  • Cara

    After reading this blog, I decided to buy the DVD (from MU). I’d seen the movie many years ago, but decided I wanted to own it, especially as I like almost everything Wyler has ever done. Ben Hur is not a favorite and didn’t deserve all those Oscars, but I won’t digress.

    This is a typical, thoughtful Wyler movie with uniformly excellent acting jobs and a well cast ensemble that surprised me. (Yes, it was one of Chuck Conner’s best roles. And Wyler managed to control and utilize if not extinguish Heston’s histrionics.) Most of all, the film was very thought provoking. In an odd way, it provides a coda to Friendly Persuasion, with the two films presenting ideas about what really defines masculinity and bravery.

    I was most impressed with Gregory Peck. I admire Peck, and am drawn to several of his roles, but he can’t do comedy, and I’ve always considered him a little stiff. Not a Cary Grant, for sure, and not one of the great actors, except for those few roles like Atticus Finch that essentially fit Peck’s own persona. Yet, in The Big Country he gives a relaxed, graceful performance, yet in the classic Peck style. I think I’ve put his performance right up there with Spellbound and a little below To Kill a Mockingbird, which of course was a truly great film.

    As always with Wyler, the production values are great, along with the musical score. It’s a 50s western movie, yet it transcends the 50s and the typical western. No, it’s not Shane or High Noon, which are my standards for great 50s western movies. But it’s very good. The worst thing about it was the theatrical trailer, which was typical 50s fare.

    I was sorry to hear Wyler and Peck fell out over this film, as I think the film does justice to both the director and actor’s careers.