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.
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?”
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.