In 1958 famed Director William Wyler and movie star Gregory Peck set out to produce a film together that became the offbeat western The Big Country. Though the picture featured a slew of big names and was directed by one of the greats, there’s no doubt it has receded into the background through the years. Today I aim to reintroduce this hidden gem to a new audience.
The Big Country starred Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons along with a host of magnificent actors, but the film is largely ignored today.
Released in 1958, The Big Country was a huge Box Office success coming in number four for the year behind South Pacific, Auntie Mame and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. It was also a critical hit and an award recipient with two Oscar nominations and one win (It should have been two, but more on that later). And in addition to Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons leading the cast the film also featured Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya and Chuck Connors in supporting roles. And directed by William Wyler?!? I mean, c’mon – this is a movie with pedigree.
Chuck Connors of The Rifleman fame followed up his previous year’s success with Old Yeller by playing a memorable bad guy in The Big Country.
Additionally, at the beginning of this article, I referred to The Big Country as an “offbeat western”. Made in the heyday of films set in the old west, what is it about this one that makes it unique? Why it’s the story of course. As well as a plot with a clever allegory about violence and the Cold War.
When retired sea captain James McKay (played by Gregory Peck) travels from the east to Texas (the big country of the title) to join his new fiance (played by Carroll Baker) he runs smack dab into the middle of a feud over water rights between two families. The heads of these two families (Burl Ives and Charles Bickford) are bitter enemies and their hatred for each other fuels the conflict of the story. With the introduction of Mckay and his quite different approach to conflict resolution, the allegory about the futility of violence begins. Like I said, an incredibly unique western teaming with memorable moments and characters.
Gregory Peck’s well known personal views on the futility of violence made him the perfect actor to play James McKay in The Big Country.
In fact, I think a film like The Big Country is the very reason I wanted to start writing about movies lost to time. Here is a picture that checked a lot of boxes for success and yet it still has largely fallen by the wayside in the annals of cinema. So with this writing I would like to affirm all of the above reasons for this film’s success and highlight why it should be ripe for a rediscovery. Here are Five Reasons –
1. Charlton Heston in a supporting role
Just a few years removed from playing Moses in The Ten Commandments and only a year away from starring in Ben-Hur, The Big Country is certainly one of the minor roles in Heston’s filmography. One of the biggest stars in movie history here plays a supporting role but even then he does it with style. In The Big Country he’s Steve Leech, the ranch foreman and right hand man of cattle baron Major Henry Terrill. He’s in love with Terrill’s daughter Patricia who has spurned him for another man. Heston’s performance brings the film an authenticity that gives the movie it’s punch – both literally and figuratively.
It’s certainly not the role that Charlton Heston is remembered for, but his performance as ranch foreman Steve Leech in The Big Country gave the film real bite.
2. The film score is as good as it gets
Once again I’m including a mention of the score to highlight why a film is worthy for rediscovery. I hate to seem like I’m falling into a rut here but the fact is you can’t mention positive attributes of The Big Country without talking about the score – it is that good. Even if you’ve not seen the film, you’ve heard the music and you don’t even know it. That is because it is the quintessential music for a western. Once you hear that driving string section you are mentally back in the old west. Go to YouTube for a quick look at the opening credits for just a little taste – you will immediately see (and hear) what I mean.
Written by Jerome Moross, the score was quite rightly nominated for an Oscar as best film score for the year in 1958. It lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for The Old Man And The Sea which… blech. Moross was the deserving winner and the ensuing years have proven that with the staying power of his score. Give it a listen, you’ll be shocked that you had heard it before without knowing it. That’s because whenever a television commercial wants to invoke images of the old west, they use this music. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
Deep focus, director William Wyler and cinematographer Franz Planer’s tool for delivering some of the truest sense of “Big” ever put on film.
3. William Wyler knew how to direct a great movie
When one speaks of some of the greatest directors in cinema history, the discussion should and usually does include the great William Wyler. His is a matchless list of directing credits including of course Ben-Hur, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, Roman Holiday, Funny Girl and so many more. His directing style was out of the ordinary and actors either loved or hated working for him (Jean Simmons refused to speak of her experiences on The Big Country for example) but there is no arguing with his results. The man could make terrific movies.
With The Big Country, Wyler, together with cinematographer Franz Planer, wanted to convey a sense of endless space. They shot the film on location in a remote part of California (doubling for Texas) so that they could include shot after shot of distance. What they delivered provides a literal Big Country that acts as a backdrop to a big story as well.
The Big Country is a big movie with a big cast. With Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya and Chuck Connors – the movie is almost as big as the stars who appeared in it.
4. Burl Ives won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and he deserved it
Yes, Burl Ives was a phenomenal actor. Today we know him mostly as the voice behind the classic “Holly, Jolly Christmas” song we listen to incessantly during the holidays. But he made some fabulous films and in 1958 his performance as Rufus Hannassey in The Big Country earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Believe it or not, in 1958 he also appeared in probably his second most memorable role, that of Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Quite a year for the veteran character actor.
As Rufus Hannassey Mr. Ives gives us a beautifully nuanced performance in The Big Country. His hatred for Major Terrill has clouded his judgment and his uncertainty about his feelings for his son Buck (played exquisitely by Chuck Connors) have him acting out in all different directions. But when the moment of decision arrives, the quiet heroism of the character shines through Mr. Ives performance and gives the film it’s soul.
The Big Country is chock full of outstanding performances none better than Burl Ives as Rufus Hannassey. He took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1958 and rightfully so.
5. A western brawl unlike any other
I had a tough time narrowing down my Five Reasons to only five. That’s because I truly believe that there is a lot to recommend this sprawling 1958 western for another look. I love the leading performance by Gregory Peck and his quiet heroism. I think the two leading women in Jean Simmons and Carrol Baker give excellent performances at opposite ends of the spectrum though they are friends. I think Charles Bickford gives us a Major Terrill that is as charming as he is despicable. I truly enjoy that the film doesn’t follow the traditional western trope of white hats versus black hats or cowboys and indians. In fact, the movie eschews many racial stereotypes including the Mexican character Ramón played by Alfonso Bedoya who is a key contributor to the story and ends up on the side of the “good guys”. I also love the finale and the reckoning that harks back to a traditional western climax but then turns it on its head in addition to the symbolism and through line of the dueling pistols first offered as a gift from future son-in-law McKay to Major Terrill.
But considering all of that, I have to settle on a fist fight between the two men played by Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. The story calls for a late night fight between the two characters in complete isolation – no one is around to watch. Gregory Peck’s McKay refuses to be goaded into a fight by Heston’s Leech in front of a crowd. Only later does he agree to fight when it is just the two of them. To further demonstrate the futility of violence, director Wyler shot the scene from a great distance so that both men appeared as small as ants under a massive Texas sky. It is a standout moment in a standout movie and further validates The Big Country as a must for rediscovery.
It’s not your usual western fist fight, but the pitched battle between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country still packs a punch.
The Big Country does contain two moments that are important to the plot but are difficult to watch. Both include a man physically overpowering a woman kissing her but with obvious intent towards rape. Though neither is depicted graphically it is still necessary to acknowledge that these moments are in the film and discretion should be used when viewing the picture.
So with this look today at The Big Country I’ve highlighted a movie I consider to be criminally overlooked. I believe this film belongs on a list among the classics – certainly among the classic westerns – and I encourage you to give it a watch and see what you think. Set aside some time as it has an almost 2 hour and 40 minute run length, but you’ll find the film moves quickly filled with some exhilarating action sequences and just the right amount of romance. Enjoy!
⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream The Big Country, click here for the The Big Country JustWatch page.