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|The Big Country|
Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Produced by||Gregory Peck|
|Written by||James R. Webb|
|Based on||Ambush at Blanco Canyon|
1957 The Saturday Evening Post
by Donald Hamilton
|Music by||Jerome Moross|
|Cinematography||Franz F. Planer, ASC|
|Edited by||Robert Belcher|
Robert Swink (sup)
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Box office||$3.5 million (US and Canada rentals)|
The Big Country is a 1958 American Technicolor epic Western film directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives filmed in Technirama. The supporting cast features Charles Bickford and Chuck Connors. The picture was based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton. and was co-produced by Wyler and Peck. The opening title sequence was created by Saul Bass. The film is one of very few pictures in which Heston plays a major supporting role instead of the lead.
Successful sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) travels to the American West to join his fiancée Patricia (Carroll Baker) at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), referred to by all as "The Major." Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan, over water rights in the arid grazing lands of the high plains.
Patricia's friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), owns the "Big Muddy", a large ranch itself, with a source of water that is vital to both Hannassey and Terrill in times of drought. Julie allows all to water their cattle and refuses to sell or lease the Big Muddy to either side, so as to keep the fragile peace.
McKay brings a pair of dueling pistols to the Major as a gift. But he repeatedly refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood; he tells the Major that his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing when Hannassey's trouble-making son Buck (Chuck Connors) and his shiftless companions harass him. He also declines an invitation by Terrill's foreman, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), to ride a bronco horse named "Old Thunder." Consequently, everyone, including Patricia, considers him a coward.
When the Major and his men ride to the Hannassey ranch in retribution for Buck's harassment of a Terrill guest, McKay declines to participate. He confronts Terrill, speculating that Terrill is acting out of his own personal reasons. Terrell's posse doesn't find Buck, and proceeds to terrorize the Hannassey family, to include women and children. Terrill's men shoot holes into the family's water tower, forcing the Hannassey family to rush forward to salvage the water and shore up the tower when Terrill's men leave. Buck makes his escape from Terrill's men while others in his posse are punished and beaten senseless. Alone at Terrill's ranch except for ranch hand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya), McKay then rides Old Thunder. After being thrown to the ground numerous times until the horse becomes exhausted, McKay triumphantly rides it back into the stable. He swears Ramon, the only witness, to secrecy.
Terrill hosts a Grand Gala to formally announce Patricia's upcoming wedding. A ruffled and grizzled Hannassey, armed with a shotgun, spoils the festive mood when he confronts Terrill in front of all his guests over how Terrill's men went beyond just seeking retribution against Buck and his men, but also how Terrill mistreated women and children in the Hannassey family. He threatens to start a range war over Terrill's steadfast practice of denying water to Hannassey's cattle.
McKay rides out to the Big Muddy and persuades Julie to sell him the land, promising to continue her policy of unrestricted access to the river. A search party, led by Leech, spends two days looking for McKay, believing he has become lost. On his return McKay explains that he was never in danger, but Leech calls him a liar. Again refusing to be goaded into a fight, McKay sees that both Patricia and her father are disappointed; they agree to reconsider their engagement. Early the next morning, before anybody else is up, McKay seeks out Leech to settle their quarrel. They fight, without witnesses, to an exhausted draw. McKay quietly asks Leech exactly what they proved by fighting. Leech has a new understanding and respect of McKay.
Julie tells her friend Patricia that McKay bought the Big Muddy for her. Patricia is excited because her father will be so pleased with her wedding gift. Once she learns McKay plans to give Hannassey access to his water, however, Patricia leaves, understanding their engagement is over.
Acting on Terrill's orders, Leech and his men chase Hannassey's cattle away from the Big Muddy. Hannassey, in retaliation, kidnaps Julie and uses her as bait to lure Terrill into an ambush in the narrow canyon leading to Hannassey's homestead. Buck tries to force himself on Julie, but his father stops him. Buck, furious, tries to strangle his father, but is overpowered. His father states, "Someday, I'll have to kill you."
McKay finds out about Julie and rides to the Hannassey place, where he shows Hannassey the deed to Big Muddy and promises him equal access to the water. Hannassey says he intends to fight Terrill anyway, whereupon McKay tells him that it is plain that this is just a personal vendetta between two old men.
When it becomes obvious that McKay and Julie have feelings for each other, Buck attacks McKay. They fight, but Hannassey steps in when Buck draws his gun on the unarmed McKay and insists on a fair, formal duel. After walking apart ten paces, Buck fires before the signal, grazing McKay's forehead. Hannassey is furious. McKay slowly takes aim, but Buck drops to the ground in terror and crawls behind a wagon wheel. McKay fires into the dirt, ending the duel, and Hannassey spits on Buck in disgust. McKay and Julie are about to leave when Buck grabs a gun, forcing Hannassey to shoot his son dead.
Terrill insists on riding into Blanco Canyon for a final confrontation. Leech and the rest of his men initially refuse to accompany him, but after Terrill rides out alone, Leech joins him, followed by the rest of the outfit. They are quickly pinned down. Hannassey, acknowledging the truth of McKay's accusation, orders his men to stop shooting and challenges Terrill to a one-on-one showdown. Terrill promptly agrees. Armed with rifles, the two old men advance and kill one another.
McKay and Julie ride off to start a new life together.
Director William Wyler was known for shooting an exorbitant number of takes on his films, usually without explaining to the actors what to do differently except "[make it] better," and this one was no exception. Many of the actors, including Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker, were so traumatized by his directing style that they refused to speak about the experience for years. Simmons later said they constantly received rewrites for the script, making acting extremely difficult. Gregory Peck and Wyler, who were good friends, fought constantly on the set and had a falling out for three years, although they later reconciled. Wyler and Charles Bickford also clashed, as they had done thirty years previously on the production of his 1929 film Hell's Heroes. Burl Ives, however, claimed to have enjoyed making the film.
Before principal photography was complete, Wyler left for Rome to start work on Ben-Hur, delegating creation of the final scenes involving McKay and Julie to his assistant Robert Swink, whose resulting scenes pleased Wyler so much that he wrote Swink a letter stating: "I can't begin to tell you how pleased I am with the new ending... The shots you made are complete perfection."
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in a negative review that "for all this film's mighty pretensions, it does not get far beneath the skin of its conventional Western situation and its stock Western characters. It skims across standard complications and ends on a platitude. Peace is a pious precept but fightin' is more excitin'. That's what it proves." Variety called the film "one of the best photography jobs of the year," with a "serviceable, adult" storyline "which should find favor with audiences of all tastes." Harrison's Reports declared it "a first-rate super-western, beautifully photographed in the Technirama anamorphic process and Technicolor. It is a long picture, perhaps too long for what the story has to offer, but there is never a dull moment from start to finish and it holds one's interest tightly throughout." Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "super stuff. Franz Planer's photography of Texas is downright awe-inspiring, the characters are solid, the story line firm, the playing first-rate, the music more than dashing in this nearly three-hour tale which should delight everybody."
John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote, "Of those involved in this massive enterprise, Mr. Bickford and Mr. Ives are the most commendable as they whoop and snort about the sagebrush. But even they are hardly credible types, and as for the rest of the cast, they can be set down as a rather wooden lot." Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times called the film "too self consciously 'epical' to be called great, but at its best, which is frequently, it's better than good." The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the picture's attempts to convey a message were for the most part "superficial and pedestrian," and found that "the pivotal character of McKay, played on a monotonously self-righteous note by Gregory Peck, never comes alive. It is mainly due to the power of the climactic canyon battle, and Burl Ives' interesting playing as Rufus, that this remains a not unsympathetic film, decorated pleasantly by Jean Simmons and with spirit by Carroll Baker."
The film was a big hit, being the second most popular movie in Britain in 1959. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently has an approval rating of 100% based on 11 reviews, with an average rating of 6.9/10.
Playmobil designed an entire cowboy line based on the architecture of the film.
A comic book adaptation of the novel and tie-in to the movie was first released in 1957.
The Blanco Canyon scenes were filmed in California's Red Rock Canyon State Park. The ranch and field scenes with greenery were filmed in the central California Sierra foothills near the town of Farmington.