William Wyler’s “The Big Country” is big, so big it’s unwieldy. At two hours and forty-six minutes long, the film is meant to be an epic, and while there’s breathtaking cinematography and towering performances from the supporting cast, the overall pace of the film is uneven. We shift from epic stampedes and gunfights to painfully slow reactions shots that feel like the editor fell asleep at the Steenbeck.
The film opens with James McKay (Gregory Peck) arriving at a dusty small town in the middle of nowhere. McKay is an ex-sea captain from back East, a literal fish out of water who has come to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker). Patricia is a spoiled ranch heiress who is doted upon her father Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), a wealthy landowner who is embroiled in a water war with the Hannassey’s, a rival clan of uncouth cowboys. As McKay adapts to life in the West, he soon finds himself in the middle of this war. To make matters worse, he must deal with the jealousies of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the ranch foreman who is not impressed with the dude from the East.
The film’s plot is like a mile long train. It takes a long time to get going. The first scenes are slow and meandering, and it’s a chore to sit through some extremely long shots. Yet the film picks up the pace when we’re introduced to the real star, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) the patriarch of the rival family. Like Olivier’s Lear, Ives’s performance is staggering and Biblical in scale. He truly makes the film epic and steals every scene he’s in. (Burl Ives would win Best Supporting Actor for his performance.)
The other saving grace of the film is its second act, where we see both sides march headlong into oblivion. The building tension is nearly perfect, and the film shifts from a standard Western into a Greek tragedy. At the end we realize that this massive country is capable of consuming all who dare to tame it.
Released in 1958, the film was President Eisenhower’s favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why. The cinematography is so gorgeous it would make John Ford proud. Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston do admirable jobs, but Ives overshadows them. At one point Heston and Peck duke it out, which should be the fight of the century. Yet like many scenes, the set piece is plodding, uneven, and really could have been left out of the film. There is also a terrific performance by Alfonso Bedoya who starred in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and has arguably the greatest line in movie history (“Badges? We ain’t got no badges.”)
“The Big Country” tries to impose its will through size alone. The scenery is epic, the music is swelling, and the performances are awe-inspiring. Yet like the Big Bertha howitzers of World War One, the film sometimes misses the mark.