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The Big Country(1958)
A New Englander arrives in the Old West, where he becomes embroiled in a feud between two families over a valuable patch of land. Filmed in Technirama.
For more about The Big Country and the The Big Country Blu-ray release, see the The Big Country Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on June 7, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: William Wyler
Writers: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons (I), Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford
» See full cast & crew
The Big Country Blu-ray Review
Big. . .but intimate.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, June 7, 2011
There's probably a sociological treatise waiting to be written (if it hasn't already) about why the western enjoyed such a massive resurgence in the America of the 1950's. While there had been notable "adult" westerns much earlier in American film (Stagecoach, Duel in the Sun), for the most part 1930's and 1940's western fare was pretty standard hero versus villain, cowboy versus Indian sort of stuff. Interestingly, with the advent of television in the 1950's, that (literally) black and white ethos matriculated over onto the small screen, while films increasingly started to mine more mature themes in the western genre. Anthony Mann's famous collaborations with James Stewart spring instantly to mind, but the 1950's are full of interesting and often outré (Johnny Guitar) examples of pretty radical envelope pushing within the basic confines of the western. But why exactly did the western suddenly rear its dusty head with such a force in the 1950's? Was it some subconscious attempt to come to terms with the increasing threat of the Cold War? In a world increasingly colored by shades of gray, did we need some sort of collectively "clear" world where it was easy to spot the good guys and the bad guys? Who knows? But the fact remains by 1958 the western had become the genre on television, seemingly gobbling up the prime time schedules of all three major broadcast networks, and it was also proving its mettle with very popular releases on the big screen. The wide open spaces of the American west seemed to be perfect fodder for the movies' reliance on widescreen technology to lure viewers away from their living rooms, and one of the finest examples was the Technirama extravaganza The Big Country, a film notable not just for its expansive scenery, but for also featuring a glut of excellent performances (including an Oscar winning turn by Burl Ives), sharp direction by the iconic William Wyler, and one of the top five western scores of all time, courtesy of Jerome Moross.
Interestingly, two of Duel in the Sun's stars return in The Big Country, playing completely different parts in the latter film. Gregory Peck had one of his most unusual portrayals in Duel in the Sun, but he returned to the quiet spoken heroic manner which would remain a hallmark of his career in The Big Country, playing James McKay, a New England sea captain coming out west to reunite with his fiancée, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker). McKay is a stranger in a strange land, instantly incurring the wrath of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman at the huge spread run by Pat's father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford, who was the other Duel in the Sun co-star). Also playing into the roiling interpersonal relationships are Terrill's chief nemesis, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and Rufus' boorish son, Buck (Chuck Connors). The Hannasseys and the Terrills have a long running feud over land and water rights for their respective huge herds of cattle. There is a large spread called The Big Muddy separating their two parcels, and it is in that literal middle ground that both herds utilize a river for watering purposes. The Big Muddy is owned by the genteel schoolmarm of the town, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons).
Out of this perhaps hackneyed sounding and potentially unpromising premise, scenarist Robert Wilder and director Wyler fashion a huge, epically scaled western which beautifully captures both the immense sweep of the land itself as well as the intimate stories of these disparate characters. Again and again Wyler frames incredibly personal moments in the almost ironic settings of unbelievably wide shots where the human element is almost an afterthought. The irrelevance of these roiling emotions is beautifully contrasted with the languid, eternal and seemingly never changing landscape, and it is one of The Big Country's singular achievements, both within the western genre in particular and film in general.
The Big Country is a large scale film on virtually every level, with a nearly three hour running time which nevertheless isn't padded or overly slow feeling. The characters are so finely drawn, and the drama so viscerally exciting, that the film achieves a rather deliberate momentum from virtually its first scene and rarely lets up thereafter. What contributes to this momentum is a host of impeccable performances by the leading cast. While Peck and Simmons are probably playing most to romantic lead type, with Baker not too far behind as a petulant brat, Heston and Ives have rarely been better in roles that seem fairly far removed from the way they're typically remembered now. Heston of course was soon to become one of the iconic stars of his era in Wyler's Ben Hur, but here he's a prickly, brooding type that's actually (rather ironically) somewhat linked to Gregory Peck's equally glowering Lewt from Duel in the Sun. Ives, who proved he had a rather dark, menacing streak bubbling just beneath the surface of his "aw, shucks" country boy affect in Cat on a a Hot Tin Roof, is just as commanding in this role, playing a perhaps more nuanced role that calls for both viciousness and a deeper understanding of trials and tribulations Rufus has suffered. Also superb (perhaps surprisingly so) is Chuck Connors as Buck. If you only know Connors from his iconic western The Rifleman, you might be shocked by the brutally threatening demeanor he brings to Buck.
Wyler always chose wisely with his crew, and he once again proved himself a master hiring hand by bringing on Franz Planer as his cinematographer and Jerome Moross as his composer. This film melds image with score more effectively than probably any other western of its era, and that sweeping Copland-esque theme which Moross granted the film seems to be the perfect sonic counterpart to the vast vistas Planer caught on celluloid. Wyler's directorial excellence is brilliantly on display, ably capturing both the immensity of the west and the magnified emotions of the characters.
You can tell a lot about people and their inner lives by the films they love. It's just as true for Presidents as it is for everyday people. Richard Nixon was famously enamored of Patton, perhaps sensing himself a kindred spirit to a megalomaniac who imagined he was a reincarnated warrior from ancient times. Interestingly, Nixon's political mentor Dwight Eisenhower evidently had a deep love of The Big Country. The film's epic showdown between two stubborn, pigheaded ranchers may have seemed to Eisenhower to be a somewhat fitting analog to the Cold War which was then gripping the globe in a sort of low level panic. But one doesn't need to graft any subtext onto The Big Country to enjoy it for its brilliant depiction of human stupidity set amidst the grandeur of the American west. Human stupidity, like the landscape itself, seems to be yet another eternal element which is not subject to ready change.
The Big Country Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Big Country moseys onto Blu-ray with a mostly spectacular looking AVC eoncded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. The widescreen, large format Technirama image is perfect for the high definition medium, and for the most part, that's certainly the case here. Depth of field is nothing short of awesome throughout this film, with vistas that extend for scores of miles. Clarity and precision are first rate throughout the bulk of this film, and fine detail is excellent, with gorgeously saturated color. What occasionally hobbles this film is readily apparent registration issues, which pop up almost immediately on some of the outdoor footage, where you'll notice sky tones flickering and changing slightly in value. There are two brief but troubling close-ups of Peck which also show very strong flicker, one at around 2:24 and the other the last close-up of Peck at the end of the film. Black levels are good if not exceptional, with moderate crush in some of the darker scenes, and contrast overall is very good.
Update 7/7/11: Noted film archivist and restorer Robert Harris has been in touch with me and is investigating what appears to be a slight anamorphic stretching on this transfer due to incorrect digital manipulation to remove anamorphosis.
The Big Country Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Big Country unfortunately doesn't have a "big" mix, but it never did. The film's original mono track is presented here courtesy of a lossless DTS-HD Master 2.0 mix, and while it's perhaps lamentable that there's no surround ambience to match the overpowering imagery on display, what's here is certainly serviceable. There are some minor issues with dialogue levels, perhaps due to post-dubbing, but otherwise this is a solid, if obviously very narrow, soundtrack that boasts impressive fidelity and good dynamic range. Moross' iconic score sounds spectacular, though in the best of all possible worlds, it would have been wonderful had the original stems been repurposed for a surround mix.
The Big Country Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Big Country Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
William Wyler earned his reputation during Hollywood's Golden Era by eliciting uniformly fine performances from disparate casts in what were usually smaller scale dramatic films. That same proclivity is perfectly in evidence here, but Wyler now is painting on a gargantuan canvas, something he would favor again in Ben Hur, his next film and the one which would catapult Charlton Heston to superstardom. The Big Country is an amazing character study, especially with regard to the Ives and Connors characters, who are positively Freudian in their dysfunction. But each of the main characters is finely drawn and aptly portrayed here, and it's to Wyler's credit that despite the immensity of the setting, the personal story never gets lost. This is a long film, but rarely a slow one. This Blu-ray looks and sounds great, though it would have been nice to have had at least a stereo presentation of the iconic Moross score. Highly recommended.
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The Big Country Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Making The Big Country - November 22, 2011
The Big Country was a western made by William Wyler in Technirama. Epic in sale, the film has remained a favorite among fans of westerns. Find out more about the film and Technirama with graphics, photos, and the story behind the film.
• Ben Hur: The Making of an Epic - September 27, 2011
One of the most popular spectacles in motion picture history is now available on Blu-ray. To appreciate just what went into this tremendous MGM production, we have a very special Silver Screen column, several months in the making, including studio letters, costume ...
• Quigley Down Under and The Big Country Blu-rays - August 22, 2011
This November, MGM Home Entertainment will expand its Blu-ray release schedule for both Quigley Down Under and The Big Country. Quigley Down Under tells the story of an enigmatic sharpshooter (Tom Selleck, Magnum, P.I.) adrift in Australia, while The Big Country ...
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