A couple of years back, my umpteenth viewing of one of my all-time favorite westerns on Turner Classic Movies, William Wyler’s The Big Country, had the whole family involved. It was the first time for both of my children (an experience which they loved, btw). My wife, too, sat through and enjoyed it — a rare event for only a few films, it seems. Not surprisingly, it has long been considered the “thinking man’s western.” Succinctly, it is a film that makes grand use of the adjective in its title by virtue of the expansive landscape it captured (delivered in glorious widescreen via the Technirama film process) and the subject matter the director successfully portrayed in its storytelling.
“What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of.” ~ Colin
Besides the fact TCM presented a gorgeously restored print of this classic for the cable broadcast, which thankfully made its way on to a worthy Blu-ray Disc, this showing drew me to some overlooked aspects of this first-rate and enduring western. That same year, I ran into one of the best reviews of the film. It was equally worthy. A friend from across the pond wrote the sterling piece (which I quoted above). I’ll freely cite segments of his review here in this post and state it was among the best that year. The piece was written by the fine western/noir film blogger Colin over at Riding the High Country. I had his review in mind when I sat with my small band and re-watched this classic oater. Afterward, I reflected on some small, but what I felt were original, aspects in the picture that made it special (for me, anyways).
The film used a tried and true character-driven device for its storytelling. Initiated by his upcoming nuptials to the daughter of a wealthy rancher, Gregory Peck‘s Jim McKay was the fish-out-of-water sea captain set out upon the western plains. Not only the hero, McKay was proffered as the unique catalyst that brought the power struggle between two feuding families to a head in the tale. There’s another obvious facet of the story that bares examination. The supporting cast in their roles were presented as corresponding opposite numbers among the feuding families.
The newly land-bound McKay must eventually contend with them all. Mostly, this detail is held within rival households, but not always. Major Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) certainly represent their contending bands. Admittedly, the petulantly fickle fiancée Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) and the independent Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) did not fit that mold. Still, all of these conflicting pairs came to resulting melodramatic confrontations with each other in the telling of this film.
That is, with one exception. It is the unique pair of counterparts, which made for an atypical triangulation within the yarn, that of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors). Both are the representative henchmen for the symbolic villains in the picture, the perceived civilized Major and coarse patriarch Rufus (though I will attest to Colin’s assertion that “…there aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country”).
These two are more alike than their initial impressions would reveal. And while the main bad guys are well represented with these leads (Ives won a deserving Best Supporting Actor Oscar, in fact), it is Leech (the Major’s strong right hand man) and Buck (the eldest son of Rufus) that I conclude are probably the most compelling set in the entire picture. These are the pivotal characters that will keenly drive the protagonist on, and, in doing so, make the story exceptional. Here’s why I say that (with some leading points, along with the usual cautionary spoilers ahead warning):
- each of these rivals are driven by desire and seek the affections of the women the former sea captain has involvement with — Leech covets the betrothed Patricia; and Buck lusts after Julie, the astute and beautiful woman McKay comes to love in the tale
- while its stated early on (by Julie) that everyone in the area expects a fight between these two contending cowboys (the supposed champions for their respective clans), they never actually have that confrontation with each other
- it is the outsider James McKay that will be the conduit for the story’s engagement via his showdown with each, though the trio are only ever in the same vicinity once (at the beginning of the story)
- note as well, McKay, as per his character’s wise temperament, battles each of them under his terms and timing, not theirs; no fool he
- in the course of the story, both Leech and Buck come to see their respective father-figures for the brutal, hateful, but honor-bound, men they are
- after their clashes with the newcomer, neither Leech or Buck are ever the same men
As well, I’m in total agreement again with Colin in that, “Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that.” Certainly, this role proved to many, especially this director, that Heston had the acting wherewithal. So much so, Wyler envisioned the actor could (and did) carry off a serious, dramatic, and heroic characters like Judah in the upcoming epic, Ben-Hur (his next collaboration with Wyler).
Still, that this actor could execute a central supporting role given his work to that point in his career, among the quality of the name cast here, was not a stretch of the imagination. What I’ve now come to believe though was the revelation, the overlooked aspect, in this film was how well Chuck Connors performed his key part.
The former professional basketball and baseball player was never considered a ‘great’ thespian. Nonetheless, his four-decade career showed that he was a more than capable character actor when given half a chance. And director William Wyler did exactly that. However, it seems Chuck Connor never received the praise he deserved for what he accomplished in this Western. In the hands of another filmmaker, his part would have been a more archetypical and one-dimensional cad role. But he and Wyler brought something more.
Like the great Woody Strode, his large physique could wordlessly impress upon the scenes he partook. Note Connors’ physicality when together with other actors here. He’s imposing, and the director, like John Ford did with Strode, took advantage of that. He framed him very well throughout the film. Regardless, his character has a surprising depth. As Colin deftly noted:
“There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too.”
The Steve Leech character, too, was a bully in the film, just not an ordinary one. He maintains a grit all through the story which reveals his character’s genuine valor by the end. Buck Hannassey on the other hand was a ruffian. But in a way, his character had the more difficult task of attempting to draw sympathy from the audience by way of showing a coward’s face. And it is the principal motif of masculinity and cowardice which William Wyler explored so well by means of the male personae in the film. This was especially true for this supporting duo.
The subject matter, with the aid of the screenplay by Robert Wilder, may seem quaint by today’s standards. Even so, it remains a timely and àpropos theme regardless of the decade from which it sprung. Lastly, as was distinctive for many of the westerns during the 1950s, the landscape became another character in the film. Having a master of the widescreen at the helm (Wyler) only emphasized that detail so beautifully for this timeless work. And I’d point to a best-loved sequence for both Colin and myself as the finest example for all of this. So I’ll close this article with my friend’s eloquent summary of the scene, one that represents the film oh so very well:
Trivia: I chose the poster for this piece purposely. Like this one, it is the only playbill I’m aware of, among those released for the picture, that depicted Buck Hannassey’s character on the advertising graphic (he’s on the far right, btw). Most of the time, he was simply left off the movie poster. And in all cases for the one-sheets, Chuck Connors’ name was not listed with the other leads in the main actor titles — he’s relegated to the small print. Which was, I think, most unfortunate. Both he and Charlton Heston would work together one last time, for the sci-fi classic, Soylent Green, in 1973.