Making a Western in Hollywood today seems to be the equivalent of adapting a Jane Austen novel – it’s a beautiful way to shine up your film résumé without losing your street credibility. Gone are the days of studio Westerns, churned out at a frightening speed and vastly different in their approaches. John Ford and John Wayne are dead. Tombstone and Dodge City have become ghost towns and finally amusement parks.
In many people’s minds Western films and Western television programs merge into one vast dust bowl, where cowboys shoot white men dressed up as Indians and gun down each other over a game of poker. The different historical transformations, from Gene Autry’s melodies to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti salutes, are usually only analyzed by film critics. Hollywood hasn’t completely given up on the genre, since films like Dancing with Wolves, Unforgiven, and The Missing still raise their hands and ask to be counted. But by and large Westerns have been replaced by space adventures and fantasy, the unexplored frontiers of heroes and filmmakers.
Hollywood shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet. Movie moguls might want to try watching a lesser-known example of the genre, The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. It’s not a classic in the sense of Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but it’s a kind of cinematic cipher. It opens your eyes to the possibilities still inherent in the Western and shows you its true star. Not a man on a horse or a gunfighter at high noon, but the West itself.
In The Big Country, Gregory Peck plays Captain Jim McKay, a sea captain thrust into unfamiliar territory when he comes to marry his sweetheart, Pat Terrill, the daughter of a cattle baron. He arrives in the middle of a feud between Pat’s father, Major Henry Terrill, and a rival baron, Rufus Hannassey. Hannassey’s boys, especially Buck, are wild and drunken, roughing up McKay a little on his first journey to the Terrill’s, but they are ruled by the iron fist of their father, who has a kind of Wild West moral integrity. The feud is complicated by a third property, called the Big Muddy, owned by the local schoolteacher, Julie Maragon. Both men covet the land, which they have been permitted to water their cattle on, and seek to persuade Julie to sell it. When Jim McKay buys it as a wedding present, complications ensue.
One of the major benefits that director William Wyler had for The Big Country, released in 1958, is the option of color. Black and white made for striking silhouettes and shadows in earlier Westerns, but it could not convey the blue of the sky or the yellow prairie. It could not show the small patches of green outside Julie’s house in town, which demonstrate her human strength in such unforgiving natural landscapes. Nor could black and white capture the light of the treeless landscape, the sunset that adds richness to the skin of Julie and Buck as they ride into the Hannassey’s camp after Buck has kidnapped her. Nor the dusty white bleached-bone look of Blanco Canyon after the brown richness of the Big Muddy. In a famous scene, when Jim McKay fights the foreman, Steve Leech, after Leech has called him a liar and picked a fight, the pre-dawn light adds something imperceptible but necessary, a sense of quiet waiting.
This particular fight scene alternates between close-ups of the men battering each other and long shots, as their punches can be heard in a silent and immense land of greenish-blue prairie. The insignificance of their dispute in such vastness is not lost on Jim; when they reach a stalemate from exhaustion, he asks Leech what has been proven by their actions.
Wyler and his team chose such camera shots to exemplify the constant refrain that echoes through the film, that the West is, without a doubt, a big country. You can see such tactics in the opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, where the shots alternate between showing a small carriage barreling along a two-line road into the wilderness and close-ups of the wheels and horses. The title arrives after a long shot and a close-up of the horse’s feet, so that it is framed by a long shot of the wide-open landscape. When the carriage reaches the town it is a small pile of wooden stores and shacks, almost lost in the swirling dust. Wyler comes full circle with his vision when he films the showdown at Blanco Canyon, where the towering cliffs purposefully dwarf the men riding through it.
One of Wyler’s key qualities is restraint. When the Hannassey boys are being beaten to a pulp by Terrill’s men, in retribution for their antics with McKay, Wyler refrains from showing pulpy, bleeding faces. Instead the boys are lassoed, like they lassoed McKay, and led to a barn. The townspeople, one and two at a time, follow in eerie silence. They neither shout out in protest nor jeer the Terrill men on, but observe the lawlessness of the West with ruthless detachment.
This makes the attempted rape of Julie by Buck all the more frightening, since here Wyler takes the reins off the cameramen and the actors and lets the scene explode. It is a hardscrabble and uneven fight, and horribly true to life, as Buck assaults her when she’s sleeping and forces her head back with his hand covering her mouth. When his father interrupts Buck’s desires, Wyler moves the camera to under the bed, showing him being kicked by Rufus and crawling like a dog, as the audience reels in revulsion at the violence.
Humans, then, in this movie are simply bits of clay, blind, with the exception of Jim, to their own insignificance. As Jim angrily tells Rufus, the feud is nothing more than a fight between two old and selfish men. Their attempts to make grandiose statements about right and wrong are merely handfuls of dirt thrown in each other’s eyes. While Buck is a seething mass of cowardice and lust, he is also a boy beaten by his father – a father with a strong and stubborn pride, but who insists on fairness in dealings. Burl Ives’s portrait of Rufus rightly earned him an Academy Award: an Old Testament patriarch and a plain-speaking man who ends his life in a useless showdown with Major Terrill, who also dies. The movie tells us that there are no good guys and bad guys in The Big Country, just deeply flawed people.
Making Jim McKay a sea captain was a canny move. As McKay, Peck is foreshadowing his roles in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), a man of hidden strength. Although Jim goes through an indoctrination process, learning how to ride a bucking horse and finding his own way in a place without landmarks, he is not without resources. He tells a guest at the Terrill’s party that he has seen another place as big as this country, namely, the ocean, and as a captain of a 19th century ship he has also seen the roughest of men and knows how to handle them. His refusal to fight or join with the Terrill’s in their feuding leads to people underestimating his ability. Julie, a woman, and Ramón, a Mexican who works for Major Terrill, are the only ones who can see past his city-slicker bowler hat to recognize his integrity.
Perhaps it is because Julie is both part of the West and apart from it that she ultimately proves a suitable match for Jim. The granddaughter of a judicious man, she attempts to continue his wise work. When she arrives at the Terrill’s party she is clad is demure pink, a contrast to the late entrance of Pat, who wears a plunging black neckline and shouts, “Hey Y’all!”, from the top of the stairs. But Julie’s position as owner of the Big Muddy, susceptible to men’s strength, leads her to trust Jim in undertaking its care. Jean Simmons, a British actress by training, lends gravitas and simplicity to her role. She, like Peck, plays down the histrionics. The gentleman’s duel for her freedom is an apt metaphor for Julie and Jim; they belong to a more civilized way of living, although one where violence has only been modified to certain rules.
The Big Country is slightly unusual. Unlike other Westerns, there are no Indians and covered wagons. Ramón Guiteras is in some ways stereotyped, but Wyler provides a few illuminating extras to mitigate the treatment. When Peck arrives he says hello in Spanish to Ramón and is answered by a flood of conversation and introductions to Ramón’s friends and family, marking another set of people and lives not examined in the film. Wyler also subtly includes the Mexican staff, going about their daily routines at the Terrill’s mansion, which shows a kind of careless blindness of the ruling class.
You can compare this subtlety and restraint to another Peck Western, Duel in the Sun (1946), nicknamed Lust in the Dust, for an example of completely opposing treatments. While The Big Country toys with light, Duel in the Sun saturates the film with reds and oranges, signifying unbridled passions. Jennifer Jones, playing a half-gypsy girl, is attracted to a good man and an evil one, played by Peck. Their on-and-off passion results in death for almost all of the characters involved and culminates in a showdown at Squaw’s Head Rock, where they shoot each other to death even as they kiss and embrace. Melodrama is too tame a word for this film, and it shows us little of the West as a character in of its own right. Instead it is a setting in which eastern inhibitions can be dropped. In this sense, it does no justice to the genre.
For the Western, when all is said and done, is about a man (or sometimes a woman) facing up to his insignificance. Solitude is all around. You can either band with the scraps of humanity that you can find, as in True Grit or Red River, or you can accept that loneliness is a constant in your life that you may come to covet, as in Shane. You can fight it or you can succumb to it, but you’re never going to beat the West. Even now, when developments have sprung up and farms settled, there is still a whole lot of country left untamed. And until it is, the West will always be waiting for filmmakers and writers, a vastness untroubled by our petty concerns and a blank canvas for our imaginations.