The Big Country (1958)

Gregory Peck is James McKay, which means that I had to suppress a snicker whenever someone started talking about Jim McKay buying that spread of land called the Big Muddy and getting himself involved in a range war, since I kept expecting Jim McKay to start talking about the “thrill of victory” after getting the Big Muddy and bemoaning “the agony of defeat” after the Major (don’t ask) and Burl Ives shoot each other during the big canyon showdown that brings the movie to its close.

McKay comes back to his fiancée’s home where her daddy (the Major) has a big ranch and is embroiled in a age-old dispute with Rufus Hannassey, the patriarch to the white trash clan that has some land near the Major’s ranch. Both Rufus and the Major need access to the water on the Big Muddy, a piece of land owned by Jean Simmons.

Since he’s an outsider, Jim McKay doesn’t understand the backward ways of the people in the Big Country. (About every ten minutes in this movie some local goober would reiterate to McKay that he was in the Big Country to the point that he and Jean Simmons actually joked about it later on!)

The Big Country 1

I’m guessing that this Big Country place was probably Texas and if so, it just proves the conventional wisdom that the rest of us regular states would gladly give Texas back to Mexico if they would only take it.

In the Big Country, you were only as tough as your reputation and when you were hanging out with old crusty guys named Major, Burl Ives, and a wild stallion called Thunder, the cut of your gib was measured by whether you got irked when Charlton Heston called you a liar.

Peck though makes a pretty convincing case for his pragmatism and also benefits from the fact that he beats ass when he wants and has the guts to stand there while someone shoots him in the head during a duel. There really ain’t no substitute in the Big Country for being crazy brave.

The Big Country 2

You see, when you boil it all down, this is a movie about some joker from the city outwitting the country rednecks at their own game. In the end, Peck gets the prized land, ditches the annoying (and not nearly as good looking as Jean Simmons) fiancée, and gets rid of the Major, Rufus, and Rufus’ son (Chuck Connors). He even learns to ride Thunder!

What I liked about Peck’s character was that in spite of these hillbillies and their various attempts to co-opt him to their own ends, McKay just went ahead and did what he wanted on his own terms. I’m not real sure what this actually accomplished, like with the horse or battling Heston to a standstill without any one around.

On the plus side, he was able to lose his fiancée and scored lots of cool points when the fiancée came crawling back and he told her that it wasn’t going to work out, but that he was staying and had bought the land her daddy had so desperately wanted. Oh well, at least you’ll always have your dried up old daddy and thirsty cows to keep you warm at night!

The Big Country 3

Of course, with any three hour movie, this one has its share of problems. I’m still trying to figure out why when it was finally over, I was wishing that there had been more scenes with Heston, Simmons, and Peck. You would’ve thought with the excessive running time that we would have gotten our fill of the stars, but we didn’t.

I also found my interest fading whenever Rufus or the Major or someone started whining about whose cows were going to get whose water and I wondered why McKay just didn’t ask Jean Simmons to move back east with him and let these country folks fight it out by themselves. Really, what did McKay care about any of this?

Still, it’s easily a must see for one important reason: Heston is pure Heston! You’ll have to pry The Big Country from my cold dead hands! You know, because it was so long, I died of old age watching it.

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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