Westerns: The Big Country

Gregory Peck Jaz on The Big Country

It’s raining outside and I’m curled up on the couch with a cup of jasmine green tea and my laptop. I’m contemplating Westerns. Obviously — as evidenced by a previous post — Westerns aren’t my thing. The Big Country is an exception. Also Cowboys and Aliens. Because who doesn’t like a stubble-perfect, cowboy hat-clad Daniel Craig shooting down evil, slimy green extraterrestrials?

But back to The Big Country.

Starring Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston As Himself, The Big Country is all about standing up for human rights and finding whimsical objects hidden in tree nooks. Okay, maybe not the latter, but the film’s hero is a flawless, incredibly honorable and good-looking guy who wants to do the right thing by everyone even when what some people truly deserve is a good punch in the face.

The film starts as most Westerns do: a stranger comes into town and immediately ruffles the townsfolk’s carefully cultivated feathers. Land is at stake. More specifically, water. Two feuding families, the Terrills and Hannasseys, stand on either side, vying for control and trying to convince its owner, spunky Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons of Guys and Dolls fame), to sell. She refuses, knowing what will happen if she does.

What does the stranger have to do with all this? Nothing at first. James McKay (Peck), a retired sea captain, simply came out west to marry the ditzy blonde he met up north, not stir up trouble.  But she just so happens to be a Terrill … not to mention Heston’s – her father’s right hand man – love interest. Sparks fly. Guns shoot. Horses gallop. And Heston, thankfully, gets a good punch in the face.

Liz on The Big Country

“Have you ever seen anything so big?”

“Yes.”

“You have? What?”

“A couple of oceans.”

“Oceans? Humph,” the local mutters as newcomer and ship’s captain Jim McKay walks away.

Brief Summary of The Big Country: Ship’s captain comes to fiancé’s western community and gets caught up in a feud between her wealthy family, the Terrills, and the despised and uncouth Hannasseys. Also caught between the groups is the fiancé’s friend Julie Maragon, who owns a large ranch with a year round water source both families want exclusive access to.

Gregory Peck (as Jim McKay) brings to the little western community where his fiancé Pat Terril lives everything from a new look with his fancy bowler hat to a new perspective on how big the country really is and why the notable citizens act as they do.

McKay’s father was killed in a duel, leaving McKay with a firm belief that a “good name needs no defense.” He accepts hazing from the Hannasseys (the “local trash” family hated by his wealthy fiancé’s family), declines riding bronco Old Thunder in front of everyone, even refuses to fight jealous foremen Charles Heston. McKay simply refuses to prove himself to anyone. Anyone but himself, that is. When watching the movie, I always want him to fight, to defend himself, to make sure everyone knows he’s not a coward. But I understand what he’s saying. You can’t go through your life proving yourself to others, getting your feather ruffled every time someone insults or mistreats you. In my opinion, this attitude can be taken too far, like by those who expect people to accept everything they do as right. Watch a few adventure movies, especially seafaring ones, and you’ll see the arrogant captains or adventures ordering their men to do dangerous or seemingly nonsensical things without explanation. It’s humbling to explain your actions, but sometimes a certain amount of “proving yourself” is a good thing.

An interesting angle to the caring what others think about you topic is McKay’s fiancé Pat’s response to the implication that he’s a coward. She expects him to fight and is humiliated when he doesn’t (“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life” is a comment she makes to him more than once), leading to tension between them. Her friend Julie even asks her “How many times does a man have to win you?”

Starring Gregory Peck, Carrol Baker at Pat Terrill, Jean Simmons as Julie Marragon, Charles Heston as the Terrill’s foreman, and Burl Ives as Rufus Hannasseys, and directed by Willim Wyler of Mrs.Miniver and Ben Hur fame, The Big Country is a must see. Whether its an aerial shot of riders snaking their way through Blanco Canyon or dust clouded wheels rolling to the fabulous score, The Big Country is, as Motion Picture Herald calls it, “a work of art.”

There are at least two great foreshadow lines in this movie. One of those happens at the beginning and the other near the end. I didn’t mention them to prevent spoilers, but if you want to whisper them in the comments section, I’d love to know if anyone else caught them.

Don’t forgot to leave a comment on this previous post for a chance to win two Robin Lee Hatcher Books!

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