The Big Country
Cast & Crew
Upon arriving in the small Western town of San Rafael, Maryland shipping magnate and former sea captain Jim McKay is met by his fiancée, the vibrant Patricia Terrill, daughter of cattle baron Maj. Henry Terrill. The foreman of Terrill's Ladder Ranch, Steve Leech, accompanies Pat and mildly pokes fun of Jim's formal Eastern attire, but Jim is not offended. Pat then drives Jim out of town to Ladder, but stops at the ranch of her best friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon, to introduce her to Jim. On the long ride to the ranch, Pat and Jim are harassed by the Ladder's neighbor, Buck Hannassey, and some of his Blanco Canyon ranchhands. When Buck playfully shoots off Jim's bowler hat, Pat pulls her rifle, but Jim prevents her from firing. Although Jim is then roped and pulled off the wagon by Buck and his men, Jim refuses to resist and, believing that he is a coward, Buck and the men soon withdraw. Pat expresses amazement that Jim prevented her from using her gun and his response is delight at finding his hat unscathed. Returning home, Buck visits Julie to suggest that he and his father would like to join their land with her ranch, the Big Muddy, named after the valuable river that runs through it. Julie declines Buck's blunt offer. The next morning, Jim refuses Steve's attempt to goad him into riding the ranch's wild stallion, Old Thunder, disappointing the ranchhands. At breakfast, Jim presents Henry with a gift of dueling pistols that belonged to his father, but when Jim expresses a distaste for violence, Henry advises him that violence is the way of life in the West. After admitting what happened with the Hannasseys, Jim is taken aback by Henry's fury and refuses to participate or sanction Henry and Steve's plan for a retaliatory raid. Overhearing the discussion, Pat is puzzled, then irritated by what she assumes is Jim's cowardly behavior. Later, while Henry and the Ladder men wreck havoc on the Blanco Canyon ranch, Jim remains with long-time ranchhand Ramon Gutierrez and gains his respect as he struggles to ride Old Thunder. Meanwhile, Henry, Steve and the Ladder men trap three of Buck's men in town while Buck hides in a nearby trough as his men are tortured in front of the townspeople. That evening at the Terrill's party to announce Pat and Jim's engagement, Henry assures Jim that the raid on the Hannasseys was necessary. Pat continues to sulk over Jim's behavior, but reluctantly joins the party. The festivities are interrupted by Buck's father Rufus, who breaks in to berate Henry for the raid and persistent antagonism against him, which disturbs Jim. The following day, Buck pleases Rufus by confiding that he believes that Julie will accept his marriage proposal. Late that afternoon, Jim, disturbed by the rivalry between the Terrills and the Hannasseys, departs Ladder for an overnight camping trip on the range. Learning of Jim's plans from Ramon, the Terrills and Steve are certain that Jim will get lost, and so go in search of him. Before leaving, Steve assails Pat for wanting to marry such a weak man. Although Pat tells Steve off for insulting Jim, in private she weeps in bitter confusion over Jim's behavior. Out on the range, Jim passes the night without incident and in the morning rides onto the Big Muddy, surprising Julie. After showing Jim around, Julie relates that her ranch is the area's sole water source and was deeded to her grandfather by the King of Spain. Julie admits that she wants to sell the property, but is dedicated to maintaining her grandfather's policy of allowing both the Terrills and Hannasseys access to the water, knowing that should she sell to either family, they would ruin the other. Jim then offers to buy the Big Muddy, promising to continue Julie's peace-keeping plan. Later, when Steve returns to the house after an unsuccessful search for Jim, a worried Pat encourages Henry to begin a new search. That evening, Jim rides into Henry and Steve's range camp and once back home insists that he was never lost. Steve calls Jim a liar and challenges him to a fight in front of Henry, Pat and several hands, but Jim refuses to be baited into an argument. In private, Pat and Jim have a bitter argument when she demands to know why he continues to humiliate her by his cowardly behavior. When Jim asserts that he has nothing to prove, and offers to move into town, Pat agrees that they should rethink their engagement. Just before dawn, Jim awakens Steve and the men go far from the main house for a drawn-out fistfight. Afterward, Jim confounds Steve by commenting on the futility of their act. That afternoon Steve leads the Terrill men on a drive to force the Hannessey cattle away from drinking at the Big Muddy. When Rufus learns that several of his cattle have died due to lack of water, he orders Buck to bring Julie to Blanco forcibly to make a decision on Big Muddy. Meanwhile, when Julie visits Ladder and learns that Jim has moved into town, she confronts Pat, who angrily insists that Jim has behaved incomprehensively. Julie is incredulous, and insists that if Pat loved Jim she could never believe him a coward. When Pat declares that Jim's behavior has shamed her, Julie reveals that Jim purchased the Big Muddy to give to Pat as a wedding present. Upon returning to the Big Muddy, Julie finds Jim and encourages him to return to Pat. Jim maintains that the relationship is irreparably broken, but that he intends to remain to work the Big Muddy. Just after Jim departs for town, Buck and his men arrive to take Julie to Blanco Canyon. Pat then meets Jim at his hotel, hoping to make amends, observing that Henry will be pleased to join the Big Muddy to Ladder. When Jim informs Pat that he will manage the Big Muddy his own way, however, she is outraged and walks out. At Blanco Canyon, Rufus tells Julie that he will hold her captive to lure Henry to the ranch to settle accounts. Rufus then suggests Julie can prevent the conflict by agreeing to marry Buck, but Julie is appalled, then reveals that she has sold the Big Muddy to Jim. That night, Buck attempts to force himself on Julie, but she is rescued by Rufus. When Buck turns on Rufus, he manages to fight off his son, but warns him that one day he will have to kill him. Meanwhile back at Ladder, Henry and Steve learn of Julie's kidnapping and set off for Blanco Canyon. Alarmed, Ramon tells Jim, who intercepts the men, insisting that he can rescue Julie without resorting to violence. The men ride to the Canyon the next morning, but allow Jim to meet the Hannasseys alone. When Jim approaches, Buck tells Julie that he will kill Jim if she departs with him. When Julie implores Jim to leave, Rufus realizes that she is lying and that she cares for Jim. Rufus then intercedes when Buck attacks Jim, who is unarmed. Meanwhile, in the canyon below, Steve refuses Henry's order to storm Blanco. When Henry determinedly sets off toward the Hannasseys' alone, however, Steve and the other men eventually follow. At Blanco, Rufus is disgusted by Buck's behavior and forces him to participate in a formal duel with Jim. During the duel, Buck cheats and shoots early, but only grazes Jim. Rufus is further humiliated when Buck then cowers in fear of Jim's clear return shot. After Jim fires into the ground and turns to escort Julie away, Buck tries to shoot Jim in the back, but Rufus kills him. When Henry leads the men unknowingly into an ambush by the Hannassey men, Steve is wounded and a number of men killed. As the fighting intensifies, Jim leads Julie away, but Rufus stops him to declare that the battle should be only between him and Henry. When Jim informs Henry, he agrees to the challenge. With the Ladder and Hannassey men watching, Henry and Rufus square off in the canyon and kill one another. Steve weeps bitterly over the futility of the fight as Jim, Julie and Ramon ride off together.
Jay Slim Talbot
Carl P. Benoit
Edward G. Boyle
Don Hall Jr.
Monty W. "red" Kennedy
John C. Lucas
Harry Maret Jr.
Arnold F. "bud" Pine
Franz F. Planer
Joan St. Oegger
H. M. Waller
James R. Webb
Best Supporting Actor
The Big Country
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
The Big Country
You want me, Pa?- Buck Hannassey
Before you was born I did.- Rufus Hannassey
If you ain't the mother and father of all liars!- Rufus Hannassey
All I can say McKay is you take a helluva long time to say good-bye.- Steve Leech
I was just about finished if it's okay with you.- James McKay
What do you want Hannassey?- Major Henry Terrill
Just payin back the call that you and your men did to my boys tis mornin, sorry I wasn't there to give you the proper welcome. I got me something to say that's about thirty years overdue. This is a mighty fine house Major Terrill, a gentleman's house. Those are mighty fine cloths your wearin, well maybe you got some of these folks fooled, but you ain't got me fooled, not by a damn sight! The Hannassey's know and admire a real gentleman when they seen one, and they recgonize the smell of a high tone skunk when they smell one. Now I'm not here tonight complaining about twenty-three of your brave men, beating three of my boys until they could'nt stand, maybe they had it coming anyway their full grown and can take their lickins. I'm also not here complaining that you're trying to by the Big Muddy, to keep my cows from water. It's interesting to see the daughter of a genuine, gentleman like Glenn Maragon under this roof! I'll tell you why I'm here Major Terrill, the next time you come a busting and blazing into my place scarin the kids and the women folks, when you invade my home, like you was the law or god almighty, then I say to you, I've seen every kind of critter God ever made, and I ain't never seen a more meaner, lower, pitiful yellow stinking hyprocrite than you! Now you can swallow up a lot of folks and make them like it, but you ain't swallowing me, I'm stuck in your jaw Major Terrill and you can't spit me out! You here me now! You've road into my place and beat my men for the last time and I give ya warning, you step foot in Blanco Canyon once more and this country goin run red with blood until there ain't one of us left! Now I don't hold mine so precious, so if you want to start, here start now!- Rufus Hannassey
According to a September 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, The Big Country featured one of the largest sets ever built on the Samuel Goldwyn Studios lot, a reproduction of the enormous "Terrill" mansion which covered two continuous stages. An undated press release in co-producer-director William Wyler's papers located in the UCLA Arts-Special Collections, indicates that author Jessamyn West was to write the screenplay for The Big Country. West, who had written the stories and script for Wyler's 1956 Allied Artist production The Friendly Persuasion (see below) was credited with co-adapting Donald Hamilton's novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon. A May 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that author Leon Uris was signed by Wyler and co-producer-star Gregory Peck to work on the script, but his contribution, if any, has not been determined. Ambush at Blanco Canyon was serialized in Saturday Evening Post but was never published separately in book form. Hamilton also wrote a novelization of the film which was published in 1957 under the title The Big Country.
In a modern interview, Peck stated that after using seven writers, he and Wyler remained dissatisfied with the script, but financial commitments forced them to proceed with the production. A mid-September 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Wyler contracted severe laryngitis during production and was hospitalized, closing the film down for several days. Hollywood Reporter news items list the following as cast in The Big Country although their appearances in the final film has not been confirmed: Don Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Timothy Carey, Helen Wallace, Robert B. Williams, Harry Cheshire, Ralph Sanford, Sally Winn, Raoul Lechuga, Dorothy Whitney, Minta Durfee and Snub Pollard. A modern source lists Chuck Roberson as Peck's stunt double.
The film was shot on location outside of Stockton, CA at the nearby Drais Ranch, Red Rock Canyon, Jawbone Canyon and the Mojave Desert. The Big Country marked the final screen appearance of character actor Alfonso Bedoya ("Ramon"), who died a month after principal photography was completed. Burl Ives won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as "Rufus Hannassey." Jerome Moross' score, one of the most recognizable Western themes of all time, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Musical Score.
1958 Giolden Globe Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Ives).
Released in United States Fall September 1958
Released in United States Fall September 1958