The Big Country
by Wayne Case
This classic film was recently featured at American Cinematheque at The Egyptian Theatre, as part of a tribute called “Larger Than Life: Charlton Heston.”
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On the evening or 3/17/2001, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of The Big Country (1958) as part of the American Cinematheque’s tribute to the acting career of Charlton Heston at the wonderful Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Before putting aside my personal feelings about Mr. Heston’s politics, I feel compelled to say that I can think of few public figures that I have stronger negative feelings about than I do about this right wing conservative. I’m pleased to discover that I can separate my feelings about the individual from my feelings about the actor and find that I admire what this actor does on screen almost as much as I dislike what the man stands for off screen.
From his body of work that includes over 50 major feature films, the American Cinematheque has assembled 11 of Mr. Heston’s films for this retrospective, calling it “Larger Than Life: A Tribute to Charlton Heston In-Person!!.” He accumulated an extremely impressive body of work and Mr. Heston has/is attending several of the screenings. I watched him arrive on the evening of the screening of The Big Country, and was somewhat surprised by his appearance and pace, although I guess I shouldn’t have been. At the age of 76, he has slowed a bit and looks closer to that age than I expected.
The entryway at The Egyptian Theatre is designed for just this type arrival and I was delighted to be able to get near enough to take close-up pictures. Mr. Heston arrived with his wife of more than 50 years, Lydia, and they were elegant and cordial. Clearly, they were pleased with this entirely appropriate tribute. The procedure on the evenings when he does attend the various screenings is for a host/hostess to introduce him to the crowd before the film and to announce that he will be interviewed after the film has been shown. On the evening of The Big Country, he talked about how much he enjoyed working with director William Wyler and with co-star/producer Gregory Peck. He told us that the film was shot in Northern California and that the fistfight scene between him and Peck was quite difficult and exhausting to film. He considers this to be one of the best westerns ever made, and I agree. I also agree with his opinion that Wyler is one of the top few directors to ever get behind a camera.
During the Q&A he was quick, sharp, witty, and pleasant and seemed to enjoy himself as much as the enthusiastic audience did. Mr. Heston won the best actor Oscar for his performance as Ben-Hur (1959) also directed by William Wyler. Although that was his only Oscar nomination, in addition to his terrific work there and his colorful work here, I especially enjoyed him in The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). Other career highlights include Ruby Gentry (1952), The Ten Commandments (1956), Touch Of Evil (1958), The Agony & The Ecstasy (1965), Planet Of The Apes (1968), and The Three Musketeers (1973). As he was anxious to point out in a recent interview, he was extremely fortunate to work with several great directors, especially early in his career. Cecil B. DeMille also directed him twice, while King Vidor, Sam Peckinpah, and Orson Welles used him to strong advantage. His major contribution to his films was his ability to project virility and his best work always featured an abundance of that quality.
I hadn’t seen The Big Country since it was first released in 1958, and I’m surprised that I remember so much of it after over forty years! It gets off to a rousing start with the title sequence designed by Saul Bass and featuring a horse drawn stagecoach. The cinematography, editing and musical scoring are outstanding and a perfect setup for what follows. The running time is 165 minutes and I wouldn’t cut a minute. My guess is that it would receive a MPAA rating of PG. It received only two Oscar nominations and won for one of the two. The winner was Burl Ives as best supporting actor, and the other went to Jerome Moross for his great musical scoring. 1958 was quite a year and the competition included best picture Oscar winner, Gigi, along with Auntie Mame, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables, Some Came Running, I Want To Live, Vertigo, Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, and South Pacific!!! Obviously, some outstanding work was going to be left out, but passing on directors William Wyler for The Big Country and Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo raises some questions about judgment! These same two films were passed over for nods in the cinematography category also, and that’s a scandal! Cinematographer Franz Planer did get five nominations from his 124-film output but never got an Oscar. Among his other outstanding contributions, count Roman Holiday (1953) and Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961). Also un-nominated, but deserving, was supervising editor Robert Swink, a three time nominee for other films.
Director William Wyler accumulated an even dozen best directing Oscar nominations and took that particular prize home three times. Some of my favorites from him are Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Minniver (1942), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968). Don’t pass up an opportunity to see these classics from this master of the medium.
The Big Country features an all-star cast. Top billed co-producer Gregory Peck is an Oscar winner for his work in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and remains active in Hollywood today although well into his eighties. Leading lady Jean Simmons has two acting Oscar nominations to her credit. Third billed Carroll Baker received a best actress nomination for Baby Doll (1956), while winner Burl Ives did equally outstanding work this same year as “Big Daddy” in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Three-time best supporting actor nominee Charles Bickford matches Mr. Ives scene for scene as his bitter rival, and their work here is reminiscent of great stage performances from the best Shakespearian actors. Also deserving mention is major western television star Chuck Connors (The Rifleman 1958-63, Soylent Green). As Burl Ives’ redneck son, Buck, he provides just the right touch. He is on the receiving end of one of the best movie zingers ever delivered. His father calls him to come into the room; when he arrives he asks the question: “Did you want me?” Burl bellows out the answer: “I did before you was born!”
The plot concerns rival rancher patriarchs fighting over water rights to a river located between their ranches. One family leader is Ives (as Rufus Hannessey) and the other is Bickford as (Major Henry Terrill). Schoolteacher Jean Simmons (Julie) inherited ownership of the river when her father passed away several years earlier, and allows access to cattle belonging to both. Bickford and Ives hate each other and selfishly demand exclusivity. As the film opens, Bickford’s daughter, Carroll Baker (Patsy), meets the stage bringing her easterner fiancé, Peck (James McKay), to the wide-open west, an area and attitude new to him. Heston (Steve Leech) is the foreman on Bickford’s ranch and resents Peck, particularly since he wants Baker for himself. There is obvious chemistry between Peck and Simmons, and…well, let’s just say that the right romantic matches eventually jell. The finale features a rousing and bloody confrontation between Bickford and Ives.
Films with the scope and budget of The Big Country are rarely made these days, and that’s a shame. How nice it is that The American Cinematheque is making it possible for us to view these classics in a theatre where we can see them as they were meant to be seen. On my personal rating scale, this one rates 9 ½ out of a possible 10.
Wayne Case works in the film industry in Hollywood. Wayne took all photos of Mr. and Mrs. Heston, and they are his property. Please do not copy, print, or reuse them without his express permission.
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