Critique of Macho: The Big Country on Blu-ray

William Wyler’s big-budget, large-format, star-studded epic, The Big Country,
just may be the first anti-western. It condemns, rather than celebrates, the macho behavior of the mythical cowboy. The hero only fires a gun once, and he’s not aiming at anyone.

Gregory Peck plays that hero, a sea captain named James McKay, who’s traded in his ship to go west and marry the daughter of a very wealthy rancher. He doesn’t behave like a cowboy, and that upsets his intended, Patricia (Carroll Baker). In her view, and the view of just about everybody else, a man who refuses to fight after being insulted is just a coward. Few people in this big country can see how courageous he really is.

The only one who sees his quiet courage is Patricia’s best friend Julie (Jean Simmons). She’s smart and witty. Born to great wealth, she nevertheless works as a schoolteacher. She doesn’t take sides in the feud between ranchers that is the film’s primary plot. If you know anything about movies, you can see which woman will end up with Gregory Peck.

Patricia’s father calls himself Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). We’re never told if he was actually in the army – or in which one. He lives in a palatial mansion in the middle of a massive ranch. Most of the men living and working there are rough and violent, and are happy to do whatever their cruel boss demands.

The prime target of Terrill’s hatred is a far-less wealthy patriarch, Rufus Hannassey, played by Burl Ives in a well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. The Major will do anything to destroy the Hannasseys, whom he views as sub-human. With his greater wealth, he holds all the cards.

Peck’s calm masculinity conflicts with the violent machismo of the other men around him. Most of all, it conflicts with Terrill’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by Charlton Heston in a rare, unsympathetic, supporting performance. Over the course of the film, Leech slowly develops a sense of humanity that his boss can never have. This is one of Heston’s best performances.

Major Terrill isn’t the only absolute villain in the movie. Hannassey has a no-good, heavy-drinking, violent son, played by Chuck Connors in his breakout role. He’s stupid, and dangerous.

Almost any western could be called The Big Country. But Wyler and cinematographer Franz Planer justify the title photographically. The film presents one sweeping vista after another. Even a fist fight is covered mostly in long shots (for good reasons, by the way).

Screenwriters James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, and Robert Wilder (from a novel by Donald Hamilton) also justify the title with a running gag. Locals keep bragging to McKay about it being such a “big country.” Of course, for a man who has sailed the Pacific, it doesn’t seem that big.

How It Looks

To enhance those sweeping vistas, Planer shot The Big Country in Technirama, a large, widescreen process with twice the picture quality of standard 35mm. With a negative that big, one should expect a beautiful image.

Kino’s 1080p transfer, letterboxed to 2.35×1, provides that expected beauty…most of the time. Occasional scenes look a bit over processed. Most people probably wouldn’t notice the difference.

This is a big improvement over the photochemical restoration I saw in 2008, where “significant chunks looked mediocre and sometimes worse, with bluish blacks, heavy grain, and even out-of-focus shots.”

How It Sounds

The original monaural soundtrack is reproduced in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. I have no complaints. (What’s 2.0 mono? Technically, it’s two-track stereo. But the two tracks are identical, which makes it effectively one track.)

Oddly, the packaging mentions only DTS, instead of the much better DTS-HD MA on the disc.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling: An excellent commentary. Frayling discusses the music, the production (Wyler and Peck learned to hate each other), but mostly the film’s themes and character development.
  • Directed by William Wyler: 58 minutes. I saw this 1986 PBS documentary when it was new. Interesting and worth watching, even though the film clips look pretty bad.
  • Wyler Doc – Outtakes with Peck, Heston, and
    Billy Wilder: 23 minutes. These outtakes aren’t bloopers, but extended interviews from the documentary above. Peck and Heston talk about working on The Big Country. Wilder discusses how people confused the two directors because of their similar names.
  • Interviews with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck, and Tony Peck: 12 minutes. In this new documentary made for this release, Peck’s children reminisce about the making of the film. If you’ve watched the other extras above, you won’t learn much new here.
  • Interview with Fraser C. Heston: 11 minutes. Once again, most of what you get here are in the other extras.
  • Interview with Catherine Wyler: 13 minutes. For the third time, the same stories told by a different person.
  • Fun in the Country – Featurette: 5 minutes. This black-and-white marketing short, narrated by Jean Simmons, was probably made to promote the film on television. It doesn’t tell you anything about the film, but it says plenty about how movies were marketed on TV in the 1950s.
  • Larry Cohen on Chuck Connors: 3 minutes. This pre-HD interview segment never tells us who Larry Cohen is (you can look him up). He talks briefly about Connors’ career, focusing on his professional bad luck.
  • Animated Image Gallery 1: Three minutes. slideshow of black and white production stills, intended for marketing, set to music from the film.
  • Animated Image Gallery 2: 4 minutes. Another slide show of production stills, this one in color (and, of course, with music).
  • TV Spot: 1 minute. A black-and-white television commercial for the film’s small-screen, network premiere.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer: 3 minutes.

The Big Country is in stores now.