Drama · Western

A Big Country that Ain’t Big Enough

Charlton Heston (left) is stuck giving a ride to Gregory Peck. Image: lsdkjf d
Charlton Heston (left) is stuck giving a ride to Gregory Peck. Image: abc.net.au

In the early 1960s, the world became uncomfortably familiar with the term “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD).

MAD was a Cold War peace strategy that prevented countries with nuclear arms from getting too trigger happy. So Country A would think twice about launching nuclear weapons because they knew Country B would retaliate with the same amount of nuclear firepower.

See? This ensured nuclear powers more or less stayed on their Best Behaviour.

It’s rather sad when you think about it. Earth is approximately 509 million square km in size, but apparently that wasn’t big enough for two ambitious superpowers in the mid-twentieth century.

We were reminded of this when we watched The Big Country, a 1958 western starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston.

In one scene, Peck, a gentrified man, becomes involved in a knock-’em-down brawl with Heston, a surly man with a spring-loaded temper. Director William Wyler filmed this scene in the middle of a vast plain with a yawning horizon stretching endlessly in every direction. It’s a bitter, ironic fistfight the men engage in – on this infinite plain, a land that nearly swallows them, they can’t put aside differences.

When Heston and Peck decide they’ve had enough punching of each other, an exasperated Peck asks, “What did we prove?”

Gregory Peck studies another adversary – a horse. Image: mubi.com
Gregory Peck studies an adversary. Image: mubi.com

The 1950s have often been referred to as the decade that westerns “grew up”. Themes became darker and more complex as American filmmakers studied the society World War II left behind. The Big Country is one such example.

The Big Country is about an ex-sea captain who moves to cattle country to marry his fiancé (Carroll Baker), the daughter of a wealthy, powerful rancher (Charles Bickford). Peck is a foreigner to this way of life, which is obvious from the first scene. He refuses to fight, he gets on Heston’s nerves, and he discovers that he and Baker don’t really understand each other.

The vast territory here is backdrop to a power struggle between Bickford and a fellow rancher (Burl Ives). The two men hate each other, and we mean H-A-T-E. Bickford refers to Ives and his family as trash who “live like a pack of wild dogs”. Ives calls Bickford a “stinkin’, yellow hypocrite”.

They’re fighting over water, a river called the Big Muddy, which everyone must access for their cattle. The feud between Bickford and Ives has become so acrimonious it is impossible for anyone in the area to remain neutral. As Ives’ son (Chuck Connors) says, “You have to be on one side or the other. You can’t have it both ways.”

Although there are skirmishes between the two sides, the situation is relatively stable until Bickford’s men push Ives too far. It’s during a fancy dress-up party that a rumpled Ives calmly strides into Bickford’s house, rifle in hand, to issue an ultimatum. (Ives’ entrance is at 0:38 below.)

Now, Ives may sound like a real hick in this movie, but he’s smart and fed up. In his monologue, he bluntly frames the primal fear of the Cold War: “This country is gonna run red with blood ’til there ain’t one of us left.”

He means it. However, Bickford allows his ego to underestimate his enemy, a decision that leads to tragic consequences.

This film pulsates with violence. Relationships glint with a sharp edge; eventually all characters will be marred by brutality, whether physical or emotional.

The Big Country is a thoughtful film that explores anger, resentment and power in a western setting. If you’re wondering why westerns were so popular, we recommend giving this one a try.

The Big Country: starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker. Directed by William Wyler. Written by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder. United Artists Corp., 1958, Technicolor, 166 mins.

This post is part of The “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogation hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. Click HERE to see the fab entries.

Try It Like It Blogathon

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47 thoughts on “A Big Country that Ain’t Big Enough

    1. Ha ha! “Gateway film”! Very good. I love so many things about this film – the wide open spaces, the script, the costumes, Burl Ives’ monologue and Charlton Heston as the tightly-wound ranch foreman.

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  1. Maybe I should try this, the western genre and me – well we’ve ‘got issues’ 😉
    I joke, but this sounds like a film with themes that will resonate just as strongly today as they did in the 1950s. For me, that’s the mark of a great film – how well the human elements stand the test of time.
    The fact that it stars Peck AND Heston is just a bonus!

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    1. Absolutely a bonus when it comes to Peck and Heston, and they are fab in their scenes together. I love Heston as Peck’s antagonist, yet he still makes us sympathize with him.

      I find this a fascinating film. Each character is a goldmine of motive.

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  2. I have not seen this one in years, but I remember its quality and its importance to me, one who is not really a western fan. But there are greats such as The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, and The Big Country. Very nice write-up!

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  3. It took me a long time to really “get” westerns, but now that I’m older, I realize the good ones are all about character conflict. Last night after reading your review I told my husband this was on our schedule for tonight – he loves Gregory Peck, but for…uh…slightly different reasons than I do.

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  4. I kept thinking of the Cold War as I read this fine review, and how much this line resonates today, if we read it metaphorically: “…an exasperated Peck asks, “What did we prove?” An excellent question. I’ll have to see this one!

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  5. It’s a movie that improves with age for me. I think the key to its success are the excellent supporting performances by Charles Bickford (always underrated) and Burl Ives.

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    1. Yes, Burl Ives and Charles Pickford are CRUCIAL to this film. It would be forgettable without their performances. I also agree it improves with age. Someone on Twitter called it “Shakespearean revenge” – which is brilliant.

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  6. This is a great movie but having seen it when I was young, I never thought much of the context. You really have opened my eyes to that, Ruth. I must watch it again. Great choice of scenes to share,by the way. Ives was fantastic, his hatred for Bickford palpable,

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    1. Oh yes, I don’t think Ives and Pickford were acting in some of those scenes.

      I hope you get the chance to see it again. I was much younger, too, when I first saw it and liked it well enough. But in recent years I’ve come to see how philosophical it is and the important message it has for all of us.

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  7. The fistfight by itself is fascinating – and even more because it ends with Peck’s bitter question.
    I love how you write such small blog posts and yet says so much in them!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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  8. The weakest aspect of the film is how the characters love to remind each other, “This is a Big Country…”…you might be surprised at how many people were surprised when I noted how obvious the Cold War metaphor was at the heart of the film. I was. I’ll have to look into Wyler in terms of Anglophilia, given how Simmons and Peck with his American patrician accent were standing in for the voices of sanity and charity. Sadly, one print made for television had some distortion of the fine soundtrack, and that marred version would pop up on various broadcast and cable plays of the film for at least a decade or so…if you remember a strong buzz on the soundtrack, you might want to see it again.

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    1. Ha – that’s true. Characters in this film are continually pointing out the big country, as though nobody could see that for themselves. As for the Cold War metaphor, I’m surprised to hear so many are surprised.

      Thanks for the tip re: the buzz on the soundtrack. I was lucky to buy a buzz-free DVD version of this film for only $5, if you can believe it!

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      1. I’m not surprised at the good bargain…it’s a catalog title that probably sells steadily, but not in cult-favorite nor blockbuster numbers. And one would certainly hope they would take even more care with the dvd soundtrack than with the print or prints of the film run off for network repeats and other less showcased telecasts of the film. Burl Ives and Will Geer would trade off grandfatherly/avuncular roles with villainous or at least sinister ones through the ’50s through the ’70s…they didn’t quite corner that market while Walter Huston and Walter Brennan were still active, but they came close.

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  9. So interesting how you compare the cold war to the war between the families! It sounds like this movie’s characters have a lot of depth and the movie itself asks us to ponder some heavy questions. I liked your point about earth being so big, but the characters can’t even figure out how to live on it without fighting. Sounds like a good film and the fact that it has some of my favorite stars is a bonus. I will put it on my list, Ruth. Thank you!

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  10. Great post!! My father’s favorite classic, too. The tension is palpable throughout and the connection between the movie’s setting and that of the film is so on point! Must admit I didn’t think of it like that until now. Can’t wait to see again.

    Liked by 1 person

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