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The Big Country (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

November 23, 2011 by  



A wonderful collaboration between renown filmmaker William Wyler and actor Gregory Peck, “The Big Country” avoids being the typical Western by having a protagonist who rather keep the peace than be pulled into violence.  Featuring an all-star cast and an intriguing storyline combined with action and beautiful cinematography, “The Big Country” on Blu-ray is the best version of this film on video to own at this time and is definitely recommended!

Images courtesy of ©1958 Estate of Gregory Peck and the Estate of William Wyler. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Big Country

FILM RELEASE: 1958

DURATION: 165 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (Widescreen 2:35:1), English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish Mono, French Mono, Subtitles: English SDH, French

COMPANY: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Twentieth Century Fox

RATED: NOT RATED

Release Date: November 1, 2011

Directed by William Wyler

Based on the novel by Donald Hamilton

Adaptation by Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler

Screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder

Produced by Gregory Peck, William Wyler

Associate Producer: Robert Wyler

Music by Jerome Moross

Cinematography by Franz Planer

Edited by Robert Belcher, John Faure

Casting by Dorothy Whitney

Art Direction by Frank Hotaling

Set Decoration by Edward G. Boyle

Costume Design by Emile Santiago, Yvonne Wood

Starring:

Gregory Peck as James McKay

Jean Simmons as Julie Maragon

Carroll Baker as Patricia Terrill

Charlton Heston as Steve Leech

Burl Ives as Rufus Hannassey

Charles Bickford as Major Henry Terrill

Alfonso Bedoya as Ramon Guiteras

Chuck Connors as Buck Hannassey

Chuck Hayward as Rafe Hannassey

Buff Brady as Dude Hannassey

Jim Burk as Blackie/Cracker Hannassey

Dorothy Adams as Hannassey Woman

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors teams with a cast of incredible screen legends for this bold,sweeping tale of a ship’s captain who ventures west to find a hotbed of jealousy, hatred and dangerous rivalries. As the reluctant hero is thrust into the maelstrom, he must summon all of his resolveto save not only his own life, but also the life of the woman he loves. Four-time Academy AwardÂ(r) winner* William Wyler directs this action-packed adventure that triumphs as “a work of art” (Motion Picture Herald). Starring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Chuck Connors and Burl Ives (in an OscarÂ(r)-winning** performance), this magnificently entertaining epic will take your breath away with unbridled suspense, exhilarating excitement and explosive drama on a grand scale.

In 1958, renown filmmaker William Wyler (“Ben-Hur”, “Roman Holiday”, “Funny Girl”) and actor Gregor Peck (“How to Kill a Mockingbird”, “Roman Holiday”, “The Guns of Navarone”) would collaborate together to create film adaptation of “The Big Country”.  A film that was based on the serialized magazine novel “Ambush at Blanco Canyon” by Donald Hamilton.

The film would feature an all-star cast starring Jean Simmons (“Spartacus”, “Guys and Dolls”, “The Happy Ending”), Charlton Heston (“Ben-Hur”, “Touch of Evil”, “The Ten Commandments”), Carroll Baker (“Giant”, “Baby Doll”), Burl Ives (“East of Eden”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and Charles Bickford (“A Star is Born”, “The Men from Shiloh”, “Days of Wine and Roses”).

The film won an Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and was also nominated for its musical score by Jerome Moross.

And now this popular Western receives the HD treatment on Blu-ray in Nov. 2011.

“The Big Country” revolves around wealthy, retired sea captain James McKay (played by Gregory Peck) who is from New England and travels to the American West to join his fiancé Patricia (played by Carroll Baker), who’s father Major Terrill (played by Charles Bickford) owns the largest ranch in the area.

When James arrives to the town, many laugh at him because he is dressed up in a suit which is more appropriate for the city but not the West.  He is warned by Steve Leech (played by Charlton Heston) that the West has its own rules and it would be best if he doesn’t dress a certain way.  Especially wearing a city hat which many cowboys would have fun shooting at it.

James doesn’t fully comprehend how life is in the West and immediately, he is laughed at by the Hannassey brothers.

He quickly learns that his fiancé’s father, Major Terrill has a feud with Rufus Hannassey (played by Burl Ives), the patriarch of a poor ranching clan.  Major Terrill looks at the Hannasey’s as poor ruffians and Rufus looks at the Major as a wealthy man who thinks he can create his own law against the less fortunate.

One day, while riding out with his fiancé Patricia in the country, the Hannassey brothers decide to have some fun with the newcomer James McKay.  As Patricia gets a shotgun to shoot at them, James stops her.  As they come to a full stop, the brothers tie up James and start shooting up his hat and laughing at him.  Patricia is embarrassed and it is because in the West, no man wants to be branded a coward and for James, because he’s from the city and didn’t even put up a fight when tied up, he will be thought as one.

Meanwhile, Buck Hannassey (played by Chuck Connors) tries to flirt with Patricia’s friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon (played by Jean Simmons).  She is now the owner of the “Big Muddy”, a large ranch that is known for its vital water supply.  Buck gets into her home without knocking and tries to get her to consider marrying him (which she is not interested in) and also to not be friends with the Terrill’s (which she doesn’t like anyone telling her what to do).

When word spreads that McKay refused to do anything when he was tied up by the Hannassey brothers, Terrill’s foreman, Steve tells James to ride a wild horse.  But he declines…and in the west, it is looked at as a cowardly act.  Seeing that James McKay is a cowardly man who can’t fight for himself, nor does he have a chance of surviving in the West, it gives Major Terrill a chance to strike back at the Hannassey’s for what they did to McKay and also Patricia.

James tries to tell them that he didn’t think it was a big deal and tries to stop the Major from doing any harm to the brothers but the Major tells him that in the west, these Hannassey’s have gone too far.  James tells him that this is nothing to do with what happened to him but more of settling his own rivalry with Rufus Hannassey.  Meanwhile, Steve also looks at James McKay with disdain as he is jealous that she has chose James over him.

Knowing that he can’t stop them from what they are about to do, James McKay with the help of ranch hand Ramon Guiteras (played by Alfonso Bedoya) goes to see if he can tame the unruly horse that Steve challenged him to ride, and eventually ride it.  And through many turns of falling and trying to ride the unruly horse, James manages to tame it and eventually ride it.

As for Major Terrill, he and his men go to the Hannassey ranch and in retribution, immediately free all their livestock as a warning to Rufus Hannassey about what his sons have done.

Knowing that proving one’s manhood and surviving in the big country is important, without telling anyone, McKay uses a map and compass to navigate the terrain.  He also goes to meet with Julie about purchasing the “Big Muddy” in order to keep the peace between the Terrill’s and the Hannasey families.  Also, while McKay spends time with Julie, he starts to find comfort in being around her.

Meanwhile, when he returns back home, he finds out that a search party has been looking for him the last two days and tells Patricia that he has been navigating the terrain and was not in danger.  Steve calls him a liar in front of Patricia and expecting McKay to fight, once again, McKay doesn’t feel the need to.  This upsets Patricia who now thinks her fiancé is a coward.

The fact that Patricia is more upset that he doesn’t fight turns McKay off to her to the point where both take a break from each other to reconsider their engagement.

While everyone is sleeping that night, McKay has had enough of staying at the Terril ranch and leaves.  But before he says his goodbye, he wants to show Steve that he is not afraid to fight.  And tells him that he’ll take him on, without a crowd.  And the two slug it out in darkness.

Although things have changed between James and his feelings towards Patricia, he continues to talk to Julie.  And where Patricia was unable to understand him, Julie understands him quite well.

Meanwhile, angry at what Major Terrill has done to his animals and went into his ranch to cause problems, Rufus wants revenge.  So, he tells his son to kidnap Julie Maragon in hopes to lure Major Terrill and his men in an ambush in the canyon.

And while both sides are willing to slaughter each other, James McKay is concerned with one thing.  Rescuing Julie.

And with everyone in the area thinking James McKay is a coward, will James confront the Terrill family alone and rescue Julie?

VIDEO:

“The Big Country” is presented in 1080p High Definition (Widescreen 2:35:1).  For the most part, the restoration by the Academy and the Film Foundation is wonderful.  There is a lot of clarity and detail, especially with closeups.   The contrast is good and although not a vibrant film, it still looks better than any video release.  The Blu-ray release definitely brings out the detail in the film.  Black levels are good and for the most part and there is some minor flickering, mostly towards the top of the film.  But that is just me being a bit nitpicky.

I did notice a problem (which were short).  Probably the most noticeable was when James goes to talk to Julie at the Hannassey Ranch, there is this moment where the picture quality looks distorted.  It’s only several seconds long but I was surprised to see this distortion for a film that has received considerable restoration.

But for the most part, the film looks great on Blu-ray!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“The Big Country” is presented in English Mono DTS-HD, Spanish Mono and French mono.  For the most part, the dialogue is clear and according to my receiver, it’s a monaural track going through both front speakers.  So, it is a 2.0 mix.  The good news is that the restoration was faithful to its monaural soundtrack via lossless but anyone hoping for anything more, such as a 5.1 lossless and immersive soundtrack, unfortunately not on this Blu-ray release. But it would have been great to hear Jerome Moross’ wonderful musical soundtrack via 5.1 HD.

Subtitles are in English SDH, Spanish and French.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“The Big Country” comes with the following special features:

  • Fun in the Big Country – (5:12) Presented in standard definition, Jean Simmons narrates a short featurette on what the cast and crew are doing behind-the-scenes during their break.
  • TV Spot – (:53) Original television spot in HD.
  • Trailer – (2:53) The original theatrical trailer in HD.

There is no question that William Wyler is one of America’s finest filmmakers.  And when it comes to collaborations, Wyler and actor Gregory Peck did a wonderful job with “The Big Country”.

And what I enjoyed about this film is how it differs from other westerns that are typically focused on violence and retaliation, while those elements are in the film, to have a character such as James McKay, a man from the city who is not so eager to engage in violence and does all he can to stop it. You just don’t see Westerns with that type of protagonist.  Gregory Peck has been known for his activism and as an advocate for peace (especially vocal against the Vietnam War and even being put on Richard Nixon’s enemy list because of his anti-war activism), but you can see how conscious he was to showcasing peace without violence through”The Big Country”.

The film would also be important for the career of Charlton Heston.  With two big films in 1958 with “The Big Country” and “Touch of Evil”, working with director William Wyler would eventually unite them for Wyler’s next film “Ben-Hur” which would net the actor his first Academy Award for “Best Actor in a Leading Role”.

But “The Big Country” is a rather interesting storyline that grabs you.  You have the rivalry between the Terrill’s and the Hannassey’s.  You have the four-way love complexities between McKay, Patricia, Steve and Julie but what I found most intriguing is the tough love between father Rufus Hannassey and his son Buck.  Rufus is a man who grew up with tough love and does the same for his family but within that tough man exterior, you wonder how far he’ll go with his threats.    So, to see how things progress in the final leg of the film, I was really drawn into the film because of that family dynamic between father and son.

As mentioned earlier, a lot of star talent in this film and the performances are well-done.  The production and costume design are also well-done and capture the look and feel of the west.  Cinematography by Franz Planer (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Roman Holiday”, “The Caine Mutiny”) was breathtaking but also ambitious.  Especially around the canyon scenes and also even during the beginning when the Hannasey boys were showing of their risky horse riding.  Even actor Roddy McDowall makes an appearance as a watchman for Hannassey family.

While a Western among many Westerns released during that time, “The Big Country” is far from being part of the Western banality of films that people are used to seeing from the 1950’s-1960’s.  Sure, America loved the Western revenge/violent or action-based films but to see a film in which the protagonist tries to stop the violence, those films are quite the rarity. You do get your action, but you also get a deep story with good character development.

Overall, the restoration of “The Big Country” on Blu-ray definitely looks better than its previous video counterparts.  While I did see some video-related glitches, I was hoping for a more immersive lossless soundtrack and also was hoping to see more special features, especially for this beloved western outside of a short featurette and trailers.  But if you are a big fan of “The Big Country”, the Blu-ray release is definitely worth owning and is also recommended!

 

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