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 The Big Country

The Big Country

Director William Wyler had spent most of his film career trying to gain creative control of his pictures but kept falling short of his goal in his dealings with Paramount and other studios. In 1956, he attempted to remedy that situation by entering into a joint venture with his good friend, Gregory Peck, to create an epic western called The Big Country (1958). In Wyler's words, the film was "about a man's refusal to act according to accepted standards of behavior. Customs of the Old West were sort of debunked."

Based on "Ambush at Blanco Canyon," a short story by Donald Hamilton that was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, The Big Country told the story of two rival families - the wealthy Terrill clan and their white-trash neighbors, the Hannasseys, who were locked in a long-standing feud over water rights for their cattle. Gregory Peck headlined the cast as James McKay, a former sea captain who has come west to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) but is soon drawn into the family conflict as well as an intense rivalry with the Terrill ranch foreman (Charlton Heston). Peck was a natural for the role and in the William Wyler biography, A Talent for Trouble by Jan Herman, he said, "I knew about those things. I had a cattle business. I leased grazing land in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Merced, Modesto. I had dreams of owning a ranch. I would take part in roundups, the roping and the branding. It was part of my life at the time."

Shot on location at the Red Rock Canyon in Mojave, California and at the three-thousand acre Drais ranch in Stockton, The Big Country was truly an epic in the classic Hollywood tradition and considering what was going on behind-the-scenes, it was a miracle that it turned out so well. Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell's Heroes (1930) years before and were continuing their antagonistic relationship. Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn't like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver. Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late eighties when she revealed, "We'd have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning. It made the acting damned near impossible."

The experience was no better for Carroll Baker who had some physically punishing scenes. In the Herman biography, Charlton Heston said, "I had to fight with Carroll in one of my scenes. It's actually one of the best scenes I was in. I've got a grip on her wrists, and she's struggling to get out of it. Willy gave me secret instructions not to let go of her. He told Carroll, 'Break loose, so you can hit him.' Well, I've got a big enough hand I could have held both of her wrists in one. We must have done - I don't know - ten takes, easy, on this shot. She's got sensitive skin and she's getting welts. Between takes they were putting ice and chamois cloths on her wrists. She was weeping with frustration and anger and all kinds of things. Finally she tells Willy, 'Chuck won't let me go.' And he says to her, 'I don't want him to. I want you to get away by yourself.' Christ, I outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds.'

Of all the disputes and confrontations on the set, the most unfortunate one was a major altercation between Wyler and Peck. While they had numerous disagreements over certain aspects of the film (one concerned the use of ten thousand cattle for a scene), they had a final parting of the ways over a scene where Peck is apprehended by the Hannasseys and is forced to step down from the buckboard for punishment. Peck wanted to do a retake of the scene but Wyler refused. Peck felt so strongly about it that he walked off the set and had to be forced to return. By the time the picture was completed, they were no longer friends.

One of the actors who didn't have a problem with Wyler was Burl Ives. He later said, "I found Willy delightful. I never got annoyed at him. I learned a helluva lot from him. He was enigmatic sometimes, but that's what he did to make me figure things out." Ives would go on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Rufus Hannassey in The Big Country. It was a peak year for Ives since he was also getting rave notices for his performance as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Big Country earned one other Oscar nomination - the rousing score by Jerome Moross - but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin's music for The Old Man and the Sea. A final bit of trivia: The Big Country was said to be one of President Eisenhower's favorite films. As for William Wyler and Gregory Peck, they finally patched up their relationship in 1960 when Peck congratulated Wyler on his Oscar for Ben-Hur (1959). When they shook hands, Wyler reportedly said, "Thanks but I'm still not going to take the buckboard scene again." Peck would later pay tribute to Wyler at the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for the director.

Director/Producer: William Wyler
Producer: Gregory Peck
Screenwriter: Sy Bartlett, James R. Webb, Robert Wilder
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Composer: Jerome Moross
Editor: Robert Belcher, John D. Faure
Costume Designer: Eddie Armand, Emile Santiago, Yvonne Wood
Cast: Gregory Peck (James McKay), Jean Simmons (Julie Maragon), Carroll Baker (Pat Terrill), Charlton Heston (Steve Leech), Burl Ives (Rufus Hannassey), Chuck Connors (Buck Hannassey), Charles Bickford (Major Henry Terrill), Alfonso Bedoya (Ramon Guiteras)
C-167m.Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford



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