The 1950s Western Embiggened



“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”
–Town Motto of Springfield USA

Contrary to The Simpsons classic 1996 episode “Lisa the Iconoclast”, in which the brainy middle Simpson child uncovers the unheroic truth about revered town founder Jedediah Springfield, embiggens is an actual, preexisting word which, according to its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, dates to late 19th century journalism. Ungainly, not to mention non-standard, the word nonetheless retains a certain elevated quality that belies its ludicrous verbal scale. To say that William Wyler’s super-sized western embiggens the noble spirit of the genre, then, both refutes and subverts the thematic nature of western mythmaking along with its narrative redefinition of heroism. In short, The Big Country is truly and unironically the 1950s western embiggened.

Eastern seafaring gentleman Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) rides West with recent fiancée Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker) as the film opens, their horse-drawn buggy cutting a swirling cloud of arroyo dust and canyon sand in their wake. Like a dividing line written across the forbidding landscape, registered by the extreme length of the widescreen image, and literally over-drawing the Saul Bass-designed title, the driving, percussive strains of Jerome Moross’s thundering score is almost immediately undercut, past the credits sequence-proper, by a bit of ill-natured western hazing led by unreconstructed ranch hand Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors).

Story-thrust into a decades-long land war between his intended’s upright though imperious range-lord father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), and the roughly menacing though principled clan patriarch Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), McKay’s gentler, indirect approach to Big Country conflicts – presaged by his early scene “taming” of untamable Terrill stallion Ol’ Thunder – leads inevitably to a drawn-out battle of wills between himself and romantic rival Steve Leech (Charlton Heston). Terrill’s chief foreman has held a lifelong and unrequited torch for the Major’s daughter, and the interloper McKay refuses (at least initially) to be drawn out by Leech’s constant provoking. The larger issues around off-season water rights for and increasingly violent skirmishes around the range’s Big Muddy reservoir – held off between the two warring factions by refined town schoolteacher Julie Marragon (Jean Simmons) – the Terrills and Hannasseys’ tribe-like tribulations story-resolve in epic screen fashion at the film’s thematic, spectacular, and climactic showdown at the evocatively-appointed Blanco Canyon.

“It’s a saga, alright”, I happened to observe to a Facebook pal while preparing my review of The Big Country. Indeed, the tongue-in-cheek word “big” itself often fails to describe the immensity of the western saga throughout its 166-minute, Technicolor and Technirama screen specifications. A related running gag referring to the overwhelming southwestern landscape involves a succession of western yokels posing variations to sailor McKay on “Have you ever seen anything so big?”; to which his world-traveling character at one point wearily responds, “Just a couple of oceans”. The embiggening of the well-worn genre arises from the passive, unresisting, and laidback quality of The Big Country’s unlikely protagonist.  With his dude-ish bowler, fancy cravat, and close-tailored cut to his stylish suit, Gregory Peck’s fastidious though easygoing McKay offers a visual as well as character contrast to the slovenly, ill-tempered Buck; the heavy-browed, terrifying Rufus; the fiercely martial Major Terrill; and the hard-bitten, brawny Leech. The Big Country offers not only an embiggened critique of the western as a genre, but also a countering view of the usual trappings and behavioral expectations of forthright masculinity.

Director William Wyler, who had cut his directing teeth on two-reel westerns made at the Universal ranch during the 1920s, returned to the genre with a refreshing outsider’s perspective on, say, being served a massive flank steak topped with a fried egg for breakfast. McKay’s pointedly nonplussed reaction to a BIG rancher’s morning repast coincides precisely with audio-track insights accompanying this Blu-ray release made by Sir Christopher Frayling, whose term “red meat”, referring to the bellicose elements of your standard shoot-em-up, stands in stark contrast to the pacifistic, unifying, decidedly un-western-like impulses of its outsider hero.

In the film’s most famous sequence, a solid hour of call-outs and direct insults aimed at and sustained by Jim McKay from the jealous, embittered Steve Leech anti-climactically resolves to sequence-length, dawn-breaking fisticuffs staged almost silently at cliff-vantage extreme distance from the pointlessly embattled rivals. Like the lack of resistance to which McKay non-responds to Buck’s rope-tying humiliation in the film’s first scene to McKay’s ultimate refusal to gun down the cowardly Buck at the end, Gregory Peck’s Jim McKay again film-length stands a decidedly different, more thoughtful, less impulsive type of western hero. The new west McKay inhabits after the inevitable shoot-out deaths of the old west’s Terrill and Hannassey chiefs, felled by echoing reports of shotgun blasts off the sandstone walls of Blanco Canyon, will be free one hopes of the bitter rivalries and destructive authority of the past.

Kino Lorber’s magnificent remastering on Blu-ray comes highly recommended with all manner of title-appropriately expansive and truly special features, including an hour-length documentary on William Wyler, featuring the famed director’s last recorded interview, and insights on its galaxy of larger-than-life participants from Cecilia, Carey, and Tony Peck (children of star Gregory Peck), Fraser Heston (son of co-star Charlton Heston), and Catherine Wyler (daughter of William Wyler). Most invaluably, however, the social, political, and artistic dimensions of this New West are expertly delineated by the Frayling commentary track, which, like his numerous recordings made for the decade-following Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, contextualizes the popular vision of the American West within the continuing and deepening narrative and stylistic influences on the presentation of the western hero. McKay is certainly no Man With No Name, but Peck’s compassionate, noble, almost Lincolnian screen hero is a far echoing shot from the guns-a-blazin’ hellraisers of matinee afternoons past. Not only a new type of western hero, The Big Country’s Jim McKay is the western soul embiggened.

All images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s 60th anniversary release of The Big Country.