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The Big Country Movie Review

mckay hannassey terrill ives

1958 – William Wyler –

The tensions of the Cold War may stand behind this western of two feuding families, based on a novel by Donald Hamilton. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is an ex-sea captain who travels west to San Rafael to meet up with his betrothed, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), heiress to the immense Terrill ranch. Out of his environment, McKay is a stranger to the machismo that manifests itself in almost every encounter he has with the inhabitants of this vast and formidable land. Even his wife-to-be comes to feel that his pacifist, tenderfoot nature ill-equips him to confront the challenges facing a real man in the West. Yet the film shows how the former sea captain, familiar with expanses of ocean, eventually finds his bearings in the vastness and bleakness of the open range.

From the outset, McKay is continually threatened, not only by the land but by the people of the land. McKay discovers a feud (ironically, over water rather than land rights) between the Terrills and the owners of the neighboring ranch, the Hannasseys. McKay attempts to mediate between the two families by devising a plan to end the fighting and implement a compromise. With the exception of the local schoolteacher, Julie (Jean Simmons), everyone takes his non-aggression for cowardice. McKay continually shrouds his courage with secrecy in the face of danger. He refuses, for example, to fight Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman on the Terrill ranch, when Leech belittles McKay's bravery in front of Patricia; that night, however, McKay challenges Leech to a fight that becomes one of the film's highlights. Only later, as a last resort to save Julie, with whom he has fallen in love, does he reluctantly take an aggressive position against the Hannasseys.

Throughout the film the performances are never less than interesting, especially that by Burl Ives, the only Oscar-winner from the cast. As Rufus Hannassey, head of the clan, Ives accurately displays a fierceness deftly offset by a sense of misguided justice. It is Hannassey's character flaw of devotion, pride, and loyalty for the undeserving Buck (Chuck Connors) that leads to the eventual demise of father, son, and foe alike. Through this character, the filmmakers show the futility of the blind patriotism of their day. In addition, Wyler works the symbol of the wagon wheel into his visual compositions in different, interesting ways: when, for example, Chuck Connors runs and cowers behind one, it is as if he is hiding behind the skirt tails of the west. But performance, story, and technique are all inevitably dwarfed by the panorama of the cinematography of the big country.

Cast: Gregory Peck (James McKay), Jean Simmons (Julie Maragon), Carroll Baker (Patricia Terrill), Charlton Heston (Steve Leech), Burl Ives (Rufus Hannassey), Charles Bickford (Major Henry Terrill), Alfonso Bedoya (Ramon), Chuck Connors (Buck Hannassey), Buff Brady (Dude Hannassey), Jim Burk (Cracker Hannassey), Dorothy Adams (Hannassey Woman) Screenwriter: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wyler Cinematographer: Franx Planer Composer: Jerome Moross Producer: William Wyler and Gregory Peck for United Artists Running Time: 168 minutes Format: VHS Awards: Academy Awards, 1958: Supporting Actor (Burl Ives); Nomination: Score; Golden Globe Awards, 1958: Supporting Actor (Burl Ives); British Academy Awards, 1958: Film Budget: $4.1M.

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