The Big Country (1958)

Gregory Peck and Carroll Baker in The Big Country

A Big and Personal Western

There is a wonderful irony to "The Big Country", the title mentions big, the movie is big in scale with vast landscapes and at 165 minutes it's not a small movie. Basically everything about "The Big Country" screams big except this is a western all about personal responsibility, where feuds between men should be between those involved and not anyone else, that if physical force is needed it shouldn't be an opportunity to show off but something personal. And as such whilst we have elements of a typical western, feuding ranchers both wanting rights to important land, romance and jealousy between men and women which leads to plenty of typical action at the centre of this is a man who is all about personal responsibility, who does things differently. It makes "The Big Country" a very different western and one which whilst entertaining also has a wonderful depth, some would say a message.

Having ventured into the west to marry his girl Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker - Cheyenne Autumn), former captain James McKay (Gregory Peck - The Bravados) looks like a fish out of water wearing his city clothes. And it's not just the way he looks as McKay doesn't agree with fighting just for the sake of it, much to the annoyance of Pat and her father Maj. Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) as well as Terrill's chief foreman Steve leech (Charlton Heston - The Greatest Show on Earth) who takes an immediate dislike to McKay. With Maj. Terrill involved in a feud with the Hannassey family as they both want to own the land which they currently share for watering cattle and with the Hannassey's harassing McKay on his way to the ranch it doesn't take much for the Major to declare all out war on their neighbours.

Jean Simmons as Julie Maragon in The Big Country

As storylines go "The Big Country" is one of those movies which almost doesn't feel like it has a start and end it is a story which grows and whilst it comes to an end could have continued and to be honest I wouldn't have minded. It opens with former captain James McKay arriving in the West to meet his true loves father and see the ranch empire he has built. But it doesn't take us long to realise that McKay is no cowboy, dressed like a city gent when he gets harassed by a family of cowboys he takes it on the chin, refusing to fight back much to the disappointment of his girl Pat. It immediately makes us wonder whether McKay is a fish out of water, wet behind the ears city gent who is not built for the West or just someone who doesn't care for violence when not called for.

As this storyline develops we discover that Pat's father Maj. Henry Terrill has an on going feud with Rufus Hannassey and basically wants any excuse to attack them, with McKay's humiliation being the perfect excuse to cause trouble. But again we see that McKay doesn't want this, if it is a fight it should be his fight and as he doesn't want it to be a fight he is angered by Terrill's insistence on going after them. It makes us understand McKay is not a city sap, he's a man who takes personal responsibility seriously and for whatever reason has learned that violence doesn't solve anything.

This whole section is built on as there is tension coming from every side from Pat being disappointed in him for not wanting to fight to Terrill's foreman Steve Leech jealous of his relationship to Pat and trying to humiliate him, be it by trying to trick him into riding a wild horse or tormenting him till he fights. What is interesting is that in private we see McKay ride the wild horse, not because of needing to prove something to Steve but to prove something to himself, choosing to keep it a secret because he has no need to boast. The same when McKay and Steve inevitably come to blows, they fight at night away from the house where no one can see, slugging it out till neither can stand. It speaks volumes of McKay's moral stance, he knows he has to fight Steve but he doesn't need to prove it to anyone other than Steve to silence his ridicule.

But of course whilst all of this is going on we also have the feud between the Terrill's and the Hannassey's over rights to prime watering land for their cattle. Throughout this the subject of personal responsibility and fighting your own battles, as well as the futility of violence comes to the fore but also it delivers all the aspects you would expect from a Western. There are gunfights, brawls, romantic jealousy when it comes to women but because all of this typical western is built upon a different moral base it makes it feel very different to a normal western.

All of which makes "The Big Country" a good western and the performances take it that step further especially from Peck, Heston, Bickford and Ives. As McKay Gregory Peck gets the quietness of his character right, he's not a boastful man he does what he needs to and it makes him very different to everyone around him, to the point that Charlton Heston who plays the smaller part of Steve Leech dominates their scenes. But both performances are right as McKay isn't an outwardly powerful man whilst Leech is and so whilst Heston seems to steal Pecks scenes it is nothing of the sort. But then you have Bickford as Maj. Terrill and Ives as Rufus Hannassey and these two do genuinely steal scenes because they play such strong characters making the feud between them feel tangible. You can sense the hatred between them but you can also sense that whilst Terrill may seem the gentleman it is Hannassey who has the greater set of morals, of what is right and wrong.

What this all boils down to is that "The Big Country" is a very good western and whilst it is entertaining purely as a western the different moral basis with it's tale of personal responsibility and the futility of war makes it so much more interesting.