August 31, 2010
by Amanda Cooper
of A Noodle in a Haystack
William Wyler is probably best remembered for Roman Holiday, the movie that catapulted Audrey Hepburn to fame and was nominated for nine Academy Awards (it won four). It's a classic, to be sure, but it wasn't the beginning and end of Wyler's career. He was very versatile director, and he directed such classics as The Best Years of Our Lives, Friendly Persuasion, and How to Steal a Million (again with Hepburn). He also directed Gregory Peck in what is quite possibly my favorite western of all time, The Big Country (1958).
The movie begins when Jim McKay (Peck), a sea captain from the east, arrives in a little western town. Right from the beginning it's made clear that he's different from the people there. He's considered an "eastern dude" by the townspeople, and after awhile, even Jim's fiancée, Pat (Carroll Baker), begins to think of him as less than a man. You see, Jim, unlike the western men, doesn't feel any need to prove his manhood simply for the reason of proving it.
While all this is going on, a feud between Pat's father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), which has been escalating for years, is finally coming to a head. It's about land, water, and, when all is said and done, pure hate. In this feud there isn't a right side or a wrong side because the good guys are the ones caught in the middle. After it's all over, Jim is the only major (male) player who the audience can still respect.
Every member cast is perfect - and I don't say that about many films. Peck is the levelheaded man who doesn't seek out a fight but finds himself in the middle of one, just the same; Jean Simmons is the owner of the land that everyone's fighting over; Charlton Heston is Major Terrill's foreman; and Chuck Connors is the oldest Hannassey son and first-rate filth - not that he's the only one, of course. From the biggest name on the billing to the smallest, all of the performers rise to the occasion and make their characters memorable. Remember that old show-biz phrase? "There are no small parts, only small actors." There aren't any small actors in this movie.
This is one of those movies that have to be seen to be appreciated. The acting is spot-on, the cinematography is gorgeous, and I can't find any fault with William Wyler's direction. As an example, let me point out the score: it's never used in the wrong places, so it doesn't intrude on the story. There are two scenes in particular where it is hardly used at all, except for a few seconds. The first scene is when Jim rides the horse, and there is an absence of music that really enhances the scene because it makes you feel like you're sitting right there on the corral rail and watching. The second scene is when Jim and Steve (Heston) finally duke it out, and everything is silent: all you can hear is their fists, falls, and breathing.
That's just how William Wyler was. He used every element so that it enhanced a film and helped the story, instead of intruding and becoming the main focus when it shouldn't be. The Big Country is a masterpiece, and I can't understand why it's so rarely mentioned.