It’s the American West, and James McKay (Gregory Peck) arrives in town to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of local landowner Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) who is in the middle of a turf feud with patriarch of a cowboy clan, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). This is a town where men-are-men and a harsh word is met with a sock to the mouth. It’s a world where McKay is out of step: a seasoned naval captain, with more experience than anyone, he couldn’t care less what people think of him and won’t be goaded into doing something foolish. His self-assurance and strength of character are interpreted as wimpy yellow-belly-ness by nearly everyone, including Patricia and Terrill’s macho foreman Steve (Charlton Heston). Only local schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) understands him. But as events come to a head, only McKay has the strength of character to step up and try resolve things without mass bloodshed.
The Big Country is the classic set-up: a stranger in town, who has the guts to stand up. The only difference here, is that McKay has the guts to stand up and not conform to the macho bullshit being driven by the two feuding patriarchs. Both of these men are, of course, far more similar than they would admit, being perfectly contrasting personalities. Charles Bickford plays a genteel man with the principles of a thug, while Burl Ives plays a thug with the principles of a genteel man. No wonder they can’t get on, both see in each other qualities they most likely despise in themselves.
Compared to them, McKay looks like the very model of twentieth century liberal coalition building. Or at least McKay is a liberal who packs a punch, since it’s pretty clear Peck is probably the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the town. What’s glorious in McKay – and Peck’s sensational performance of reserved warmth and wry amusement, mixed with world-weary sufferance – is that you get a definite sense he’s seen way worse than this before. A man who has sailed around the world for decades, in the hardiest conditions, who has been keelhauled and saved men from sharks, recognises this for the slightly pathetic parochial dust-up it really is, and has no interest – or need – to put his life or the lives of others at risk to make crude points about his manliness.
If only, the film argues, we could all be as confident in our own skin. McKay keeps his cool in a way no-one in film, except perhaps Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, has managed so successfully. He laughs off his irritation at a hazing from the Hannassey’s – and makes clear, as the Terrill’s saddle up to fight back, that in doing so they are not acting in his name. He won’t make a fool of himself by trying to ride a wild horse in front of a crowd. He won’t rise to Steve’s provocation for a punch-up in front of the entire Terrill gang. McKay is a man who only needs to prove things to himself: so he’ll tame that horse in front of no crowd and swear the only witness to secrecy. He’s not one to brag.
And if it’s a fight that Steve wants, he’ll give him one on his own time and his own terms – those being a dusky morning in private. Wyler shoots one of the greatest fights of all time, an exhausting slugging match between Peck and Heston, played out mostly in long shot that soaks up the dawn Western atmosphere, as the two men fight themselves to an exhausted score-draw, with each punch landing with a punishing wallop. There is something very compelling about this unflashy, in-the-dust, clash of two alpha males, and the strange sense of respect that grows between them (as well as the dry wit of the script – “You certainly take your time to say goodbye”, Heston deadpans after this exhausting ‘I’m leaving but first this’ fight).
It also showcases how well Wyler uses sound (or the lack of it), the fight taking place often in a longshot silence that somehow makes the dusty scuffle even more effective. Silence also comes into play brilliantly to stress McKay’s isolation when first the Terrill men ride away to extract vengeance and then the disgusted Patricia closes the front door on him, leaving him standing in magnificent isolation on the porch. Silence will also come effectively into play during the late act ride of various characters through a white chalk lined gorge and to stress the danger that the kidnapped Julie is under when being held by the Hannassey’s.
The final act brings all the threats of danger and threat together into a brilliantly tense final confrontation. This sequence showcases, not only Peck’s granite principles and nobility, but also gives excellent opportunities for Ives to explore hidden depths in Old Hannassey (it surely helped him win the Oscar for Supporting Actor) and his dumb son Buck (excellently played with a swaggering arrogance by Chuck Connors) who is all mouth and no trousers.
Sure, at times the film overplays the anti-violence card. It’s particularly noticeable as it sometimes wants to have its cake and eat it, favouring probably a sort of gun-toting liberalism, of the “I could kill you but I want to make it so I don’t have to” variety. But then the film would be a heck of a less effective if we weren’t so convinced that Peck was as tough as they come and that his unwillingness to throw himself into events thoughtlessly is a mark of his unparalleled strength. Again, Wyler uses silence as effectively as sweeping camera movements and that brilliant score, to suggest moral strength.
There is probably very little tension about where the romantic plotlines are going, but both Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons are very good as two very different, but equally strong, women (although both women allegedly found Wyler’s perfectionist Kubrickian retakes on set extremely trying). But it still works a treat because of the strength of the acting, and its strongly scripted characterisation.
That and I’ve hardly mentioned the score, by Jerome Moross, which is powerful and famous you’ll instantly know it even if you’ve never seen the film. The Big Country is a Western where the hero has the strength to stick to his principles while still getting the job done. It’s superbly acted by Peck, with Simmons, Baker, Heston, Ives, Bickford and Connors all excellent in support. Wyler combines visual and a compelling story into a film that, while at points a little long, is still a bona fide classic. Again I’ll say: I loved it.