The Big Country (1958)
Directed by William Wyler
Based on the novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton
Screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder
Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors
A former sailor (Peck) is in a new world when he heads West to join his fiancee (Baker) on her family ranch. Soon he finds himself in the middle of an escalating feud between two families.
This film is based on the serialized novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon, written by Donald Hamilton (The Violent Men). The screenplay was written by James R. Webb (How the West Was Won), Sy Bartlett (Road to Zanzibar), and Robert Wilder (Written on the Wind). Fourteen time Oscar nominee (and three-time winner) William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) directed the movie. The stars of this one features Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jean Simmons (Elmer Gantry), and Charlton Heston (The Greatest Show on Earth). The cast also features Carroll Baker (Giant), Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Charles Bickford (Brute Force), and Chuck Connors (Soylent Green).
This story falls into a unique category of western that became more popular after World War II. During the 1950s the tone of many westerns strayed from good versus evil to a more complicated set of tones. This film is no exception. The story for this one begins with a typical series of events and then shifts directions with some great twists. The characters in this one are anything but typical. The introductions might leave the characters feeling simple and uncomplicated, but there is a complexity built into each of them that is slowly revealed. The dialogue helps to build the relationships and the drama, and the action is also nicely written. This story takes some darker turns throughout the film, leading to a solid conclusion. The only weakness in this one comes from some of the attempts to lighten things up. It’s nothing that takes away too much from this one.
The actors do a really good job with this story. The Big Country script provided a number of great roles for the talented cast. Gregory Peck does a great job playing a unique role in the story. His character is complicated and somewhat out-of-place for the setting. Peck seemed to understand this, and gives the performance just the right twists. Charlton Heston also does very good work in this movie. His character is the antithesis of Peck’s, and he seemed to bring that out without pushing too far. They share some great moments on screen together.
Jean Simmons also does solid work in this film. Her performance helps to balance out a story filled with drama and tension. Carroll Baker and Burl Ives add good performances of their own to the mix. Ives is especially good in his abrasive and intense role. He would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this one. Charles Bickford and Chuck Connors also do nice work with their roles. As a whole, the cast seemed to understand the emotional tones of the story and the need for subtlety. There is great chemistry that allows all of the stars to build the relationships within the story properly. The acting definitely turned this story into something great.
One of the beautiful parts of the western genre is the visual expression of the open space the stories exist within. This one used the Sierra foothills in California as the backdrop for the story. Filmed in Technirama, the images are stunning. The movie also has some solid action sequences throughout. Composer Jerome Moross (Conflict) added an excellent score to the movie as well. His work earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. Overall, this one looks and sounds good. The pacing is a bit slow at times, mainly due to some editing choices, but it’s a film worth checking out.
If you’re a fan of westerns this is a movie you need to see. I would also suggest this to fans of any of the actors mentioned above. This is also a movie that fans of drama might want to check out. I give this one 4.8 out of 5 stars.
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 166 Minutes
If you’re looking for a chance to see this one just click on the poster below.