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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Big Country (1958)

A former sea captain (Gregory Peck) from the East arrives in the West to marry the daughter (Carroll Baker) of a cattle baron (Charles Bickford). The peaceful Eastern "dude" finds himself at odds with the ways of this often violent new country where being a man is defined by his willingness to use his fists or a gun. It doesn't help that he finds himself in the middle of a range war between his fiancee's father and a rival rancher (Burl Ives in an Oscar winning performance) over water rights. William Wyler's first western in 18 years (I don't count FRIENDLY PERSUASION as a western) is a sprawling three hour epic that quickly lets you know this is no ordinary western ... it's big! From Saul Bass's adept titles with Jerome Moross's thundering main theme and Franz Planer's stately wide screen (it was shot in Technirama) cinematography but Wyler obviously isn't interested in a conventional western. For example, the fistfight between Peck and Charlton Heston is shot mainly in long shots with no music and edited in such a way that we don't see the fight from start to finish. In any other western, this would have been a big highlight but Wyler wants to get to the point ("What did we prove?") quickly, not focus on the fight. The lengthy running time actually allows for deeper and more complex characterizations than is the norm for most westerns from Baker's spoiled daughter with an Electra complex to Heston's brooding ranch foreman whose loyalty to his surrogate father makes him neglect his own conscience. Not quite but bordering on greatness. With Jean Simmons, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya and Dorothy Adams.

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