Opening Titles and Song: The Big Country (1958)
Here’s hoping we truly are in a better place at stemming the spread of COVID-191 as more of us have returned to watching movies once again on the big screen rather than at home or on mobile devices. Am cautiously joining in as viewing a movie on a large screen, in a grand hall made for it, has been a unique and thoroughly enjoyable endeavor in my life.
With that said, and since one of my older movie articles has been ticking up on blog views, thought to give the referenced film’s opening titles an appreciation.
Director William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958) is very much that. Big. Everything about it was oversized: a 2 hours and 46 minutes (166 min.) run time — the average for a 1950s movie was 100-110 minutes2. Its aspect ratio3 was 2.35:14 for the 35mm print used in theaters. Even its production issues were more than ample5. Some of that mattered when it came to its “big” opening sequence, which was one of best done by the famed graphic designer, Saul Bass6.
“If there’s anything I admire more than a dedicated friend, it is a dedicated enemy.” —MAJOR HENRY TERRILL
The above quoted dialogue is featured in another fine summary post of this movie at the Art of the Title site by Pat Kirkham7, who also authored Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. Once more, I highly recommend reading both as they give the famed graphic artist his due. The film’s opening incorporated its titles into an rousing film sequence that framed tight action shots and panoramic stretches of the old west on the big screen in equal aplomb.
The title sequence was also a testament to cinematographer Franz F. Planer’s keen lens in capturing Wyler’s view of the West’s expanse; and in doing so visually coalesced the segment with the Saul’s distinct credits, as well as its glorious movie score. As Pat put it:
“Saul created a title sequence, a symbol and a comprehensive advertising campaign for this drama about a cultured Easterner (Gregory Peck) trying to make peace between two Western families ﬁghting over water rights.”
The Big Country remains one of the definitive westerns to come out of the 1950s. A period near and dear to my colleague Colin McGuigan, as shown in his wonderful Riding the High Country blog and in his excellent review of the film from a few years back. I’ll also cite from his post as it emphasized what’s in plain view from inception:
“William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place.”
Let’s add in Saul Bass’ thoughts from Pat’s article, as well:
“To express the distance from the East, to convey the vastness of empty spaces, and thus dramatize the isolation of the Western town, I used a series of shots showing a stagecoach as a tiny object on the horizon, cross-cutting to intense ultra close-ups of the stagecoach on the move.., the horses’ hooves ﬂashing, hitting the ground, the blurred wheel spokes and hubs as they revolved furiously, the horses’ manes whipping through the air, their heads and eyes ﬂashing through the frame.”
Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven‘s theme and Ennio Morricone’s for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly would be the comparables.
All of this will only highlight the sequence’s equally thrilling use of the movie’s theme. A startling brassy orchestral piece that drives the segment to justly higher fidelity. A sweeping track that soars and ebbs with a breathtaking musical escalation, and is easily one of the best by the notable composer and orchestrator, Jerome Moross. An instrumental that matches and reflects the imagery on the screen to a dramatic effect, which only a few western theme songs have ever achieved.
The director had turned to the famed tunesmith to symphonically showcase his thinking man’s western; one who had orchestrated dozens of movies, as well as musicals and concert halls. Even if he wasn’t thrilled by the result8, the theme to The Big Country is a thing of beauty. A Classic FM article on the movie and the Moross score encapsulated it best:
“While the Big Country’s Oscar-nominated score is somewhat reminiscent of the wild west ballets of Aaron Copland, Moross attributed his unique sound to his first experience of the Great Plains, which he visited in 1936. He later described the journey in great detail: ‘I got to the edge of town and walked out on the flat land with a marvellous feeling of being alone in the vastness with the mountains cutting off the horizon.
The Big Country was Moross’s most important contribution to film music, clearly influencing the great western scores that followed. Although several memorable themes are woven through the film, it is the main title track that has become a movie classic.”
Come to think of it, time to end this quote fest with another from Colin’s article. One that serves as an elegant précis for one of the foremost pairings of moving images, opening titles, and song: “… a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.”
- As I’ve done this past two and a half years of the pandemic, have kept an eye here on its and our progress. ↩
- Are new movies longer than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago? by Przemysław Jarząbek, Dec 26, 2018. ↩
- An aspect ratio describes the width and height of a screen or image. An aspect ratio consists of two numbers separated by a colon, the first number denoting the image’s width and the second its height. For example, an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 means the image’s width is 1.33 times the size of its height. To eliminate decimals in this ratio, you can write it as 4:3 instead. ↩
- 2.35:1 to 2.66:1 was known as Cinemascope, which debuted in 1953. A super widescreen format developed by the head of research at 20th Century Fox, and used anamorphic lenses for the first time. Cinemascope only required one projector, which made it much less complex than the three Cinerama required. However, The Big Country wasn’t filmed in 65mm; it was Technirama. That’s 35mm film running sideways through a VistaVision camera, but with a lens that adds a slight anamorphic squeeze. So, 2.35:1 aspect ratio is also correct for Technirama. ↩
- Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience making the film that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s… Lead Gregory Peck and William Wyler had become friends a few years earlier and got on well while making Roman Holiday (1953), but they clashed repeatedly during filming. After Peck stormed off the set one day following a blazing row, Wyler told the press, “I wouldn’t direct Peck again for a million dollars and you can quote me on that.” Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly William Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1929) years before and were continuing their antagonistic relationship. ~ IMDB ↩
- Saul Bass (May 8, 1920 — April 25, 1996) was a graphic designer and filmmaker, perhaps best known for his design of film posters and title sequences. ↩
- Pat Kirkham is a Professor in the History of Design, Decorative Arts and Culture at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design & Culture, New York. She has written and edited a number of books, including Charles and Ray Eames (1998) and Women Designers in the USA 1900–2000 (2001). ↩
- Director William Wyler absolutely hated Jerome Moross‘s score for “The Big Country”, and insisted on hiring another composer to redo the job. But preview audiences were so enthusiastic about the music, especially the opening theme, that star and co-producer Gregory Peck persuaded Wyler to back down. Moross went on to earn an Oscar nomination and his score for “The Big Country” is now considered one of the classic western soundtracks. ~ IMDB ↩
8 Responses to “Opening Titles and Song: The Big Country (1958)”
Super post on an all-time classic, Michael – well done.
And thank you very much for the link and mentioning me.
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The recent views on that one blog post gave me another chance to revisit it. Wonderful to go back to this grand western and to revisit your equally wonderful review on it, Colin. Many thanks, my friend. 🙂
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Terrific cinematic insight as always! Big screens – hooray!
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Thank you very kindly, John. 🙂
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Always impressed by the research and insight, Marty.
Although Westerns are not a particular interest, there is something about the space that draws one in. In passing, our family just finished watching a modern Western series called The Book of Boba Fett.
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Thank you very much, Bruce. Am planning on finally catching up with Boba soon. Especially, before the Obi-wan series kicks off later this month. 🙂
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I love your Opening Titles series! Another wonderful entry. 🙂
(speaking of movie going during pandemic times, i recently saw a review comment that a movie “wasn’t worth an N95” and what an encapsulation of the moment!)
Oh, that’s a grand comment. So appropriate in these times. Thanks, Rachel.