|That's a mighty bigggg country, all right!|
Easterner James McKay (Gregory Peck) goes west to meet the family of his fiancee, Patricia (Carroll Baker). There he discovers that her father, Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), has been embroiled for years in a feud with the Hannassey family, which is led by grizzled but proud Rufus (Burl Ives). James also finds he has a rival in foreman Steve (Charlton Heston), who doesn't believe he makes a fit mate for Patricia. While Steve needs to impress Pat and flaunt his machismo on a regular basis, the more secure James wants to be loved for other reasons than his ability to fight (at which he happens to be quite good). As the feud that James wants no part of heats up, he is drawn to a lovely friend of Pat's named Julie (Jean Simmons), who owns the land where both families send their cattle for water, and who has the unwanted eye of Rufus' crude son, Buck (Chuck Connors). Eventually all the intense rivalries boil over ... Franz Planer's widescreen photography gets across the vastness and beauty of the countryside in panoramic style, and even the comparatively "petty" quarrels are set against the hugeness of the "big" country. A major fight scene between James and Steve is photographed mostly in long and medium shot, where their struggle is contrasted with the epic majesty of their impressive surroundings. Other memorable scenes include James trying to tame a spirited horse that pulls the blanket off its back with its teeth [although you sort of wish he would just let the horse retain its independent spirit]; James and Julie trying to outdo one another with gross and grisly stories of sharks and red ants; a pistol duel between two characters late in the movie; and a moving climactic scene between Rufus and his son, Buck. Gregory Peck, although a little too cool at times, gives an excellent performance in a role that was made for him. Heston also gives one of his best performances and Baker [The Carpetbaggers] and Simmons [Angel Face] are similarly perfect. As the blustering patriarchs who hate each other Bickford and Ives nearly walk off with the movie; the latter is especially effective in his entrance scene when he comes to a party at the Terrill estate to tell off Henry in no uncertain terms. Although he's saddled with a stereotypical role, Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya scores as the Terrill servant, Ramon. And Chuck Connors offers an outstanding turn as the nasty but somehow likable Buck, who seems as lonely as he is horny. The Big Country has a fairly predictable plot but somehow it doesn't matter, as you are anxious to see the confrontations and developments that you know are coming, and Wyler's expert direction not only adds an artistic sheen to the production but insures that you're never bored for the nearly three hour running time. [It might have been more interesting if James weren't quite so adept at fighting and everything else.] Jerome Moross' theme music is wonderful and I believe was later re-used for a western TV show. It's very strange that this movie -- considering its major stars and director -- seems to have been almost completely forgotten. It's arguably more successful than Peck's other big western, Duel in the Sun.
Verdict: Rousing, absorbing, Grand Old Western with superior direction and some fine performances. ***1/2.