Monday, September 24, 2007

William Wyler Blogathon: "The Big Country"

Goatdog at Goatdog’s Movies is hosting a William Wyler blogathon, to which I arrive late, but not, I hope, too late to contribute a few passing thoughts.

Once again, in paying tribute to a great artist, I must also pay tribute to my father—something I’ve been doing rather frequently as of late. Enough, at least, to cause me to reflect on just how much he’s influenced my opinions on arts and culture, especially film, and to realize something I always knew but never fully appreciated: my dad has pretty good taste. So I must applaud goatdog’s effort to brush off some of the dust that’s collected on Wyler’s reputation, if for no other reason than that Wyler has always been one of my dad’s favorite directors. Interestingly, it wasn't so much Wyler’s big-ticket Oscar-winners that won his love (with the exception of “Roman Holiday,” a staple of my childhood) as lesser known films like “Friendly Persuasion,” “How to Steal a Million,” and “The Big Country.” And while I never did warm to “Friendly Persuasion” and only really fell in love with Peter O’Toole in “Million,” “The Big Country” earned a special place in my personal cinematic pantheon.

A sprawling western starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives in an Oscar-winning performance that may be better remembered than the movie itself, “The Big Country”(1958) never quite achieved the classic status one might have anticipated from its pedigree. Why that is, I’m still trying to figure out. While it drags in some places and overall could have used some judicious editing, it has the sweeping visual majesty of a classic western, fine performances all around, and a broadly appealing story, or rather, set of stories - the outsider who refuses to conform to the local culture of swaggering bravado; the blood-feud between competing ranching families over precious water rights; the two interlocking love triangles, both surprisingly understated for a picture of this scale; and the various paternal or paternalistic relationships that underlie much, if not most, of the movie’s dramatic tension. It also features a memorable fight sequence between Peck and Heston and one of the best final showdown scenes of any movie, western or non-western. Above all, it boasts one of the greatest musical scores ever, composed by Jerome Moross, whose name seems to have languished in even more undeserved obscurity than the film.

I could go on at length about the many reasons why this film deserves many more accolades than it's received, but because the hour is late, I’ll focus briefly on just one aspect that, to me, exemplifies Wyler at his best. And that is his use of the pregnant pause. (Note: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.) As other contributors to the blogathon have observed, no one knew better than Wyler the power of the unspoken word—the word that everyone can hear in the silence, as clearly as if someone were shouting it. In “The Big Country,” it serves as a vehicle for both character development and commentary on narrative conventions and viewer expectations. There is, for example, the sequence during which Jim McKay (Peck) studies the movements of a crotchety horse he’s just refused to ride, followed by his wordless request of Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya), the Mexican ranch hand, to saddle him up, establishing McKay as a hero who won’t perform at the expected moment or with the expected words, but only on his own time and in his own way. There’s that beat when the conflicted Steve Leech (Heston), having defied his boss/surrogate father for the first time in his life, catches up to ride alongside him, underlining not just his loyalty (expected) but the hierarchical relationship that can only end with Major Terrill’s death (perhaps not as expected). There’s the dramatic pause that hangs in the air after Hannassey père (Ives) demands why Julie (Simmons) is trying to protect Jim—a pause during which Rufus finds his answer after looking from one to the other; and another, equally dramatic, following Rufus’ admonishment to his son (“Are you blind?”), during which the same comprehension dawns eons more slowly on the latter. The canny viewer will have caught on to the truth long before this, yet it’s not at all clear that Jim or Julie have fully realized it until this moment, either.

And, finally and most unforgettably, there is the moment at the end when Jim and Julie, riding off together, pause not to kiss, nor to speak, but simply to look at each other. That wordless gaze is at once the most eloquent vow imaginable, the seal on the unuttered confession witnessed earlier, and the biggest tease ever. For McKay’s part, as with everything else he’s done, his most important actions must occur away from the eyes of third parties. For the movie’s part, it’s a silent, coolly amused nod to our demand for the requisite happy ending. It’s as if Wyler were saying, “They don’t need to say it. They’ve earned it because they’ve stopped to think about it: have you?”

Such moments may have lengthened the film a whole, but they also made it into that rare thing: a contemplative western. And for that alone, “The Big Country” deserves to be remembered.


Blogger Campaspe said...

I remember you posting about your love for this movie at Cinemarati, and I still concur.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

That look at the end is really interesting, both economical and a clever compromise (though I'm not sure the two actors quite nail it for me...there's an odd aspect to that look). I think it's partly a sop to the audience as you say. But I also wonder if part of the reason it remains an implied romance is that, while Peck and Simmons probably will end up together, it's not an easy situation and some audience members could turn against her as a disloyal friend to Carroll Baker's character if we got that big screen kiss we'd normally expect.

Which brings us to why it's not better known, I think it may be because so many of the usual western/romantic conventions are flouted in ways that actually reduce the level of violence and sexuality. The trend in genre-bending westerns after that was always in precisely the other direction: more violence, more overt sexuality, more pessimism, some occasional nihilism...not that there's anything wrong with that!

2:11 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks, Campaspe. Like you, I got attached to this movie early on and have stubbornly resisted any intimation that it might be, you know, flawed...

Bob: Interesting thoughts on the ending. I do think Wyler's "less is more" approach may have something to do with why this movie isn't better remembered as a western. I've always rather admired its restraint, though I may have been influenced by my father holding it up as something to admire. He loved the ending in particular.

4:07 AM  
Blogger ros918 said...

I have loved this film and the magnificent Jerome Moross score ever since I discovered it on TV as a teenager. I agree with Lylee's analysis about The Big Country. My love for the movie prompted me to search for the Donald Hamilton novel, which satisfied my need to know more about the evolution of the Jim/Julie relationship. However, the long looks between the two at the film's end is in keeping with the contemplative tone of the entire movie, which I would not have changed one bit.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Ram's Sunset said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:36 AM  
Blogger The Rush Blog said...

This has always been one of my favorite William Wyler films, regardless of the prevailing views amongst the critics. It is an unusual Western and although the photography got in the way a few times - with the exception of the Peck/Heston fight - it is still enjoyable and fascinating to me after all of these years.

2:46 AM  

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