10 January 2010 | JamesHitchcock
A standard action movie, and not a very good one
"The Big Trees" is a Western, set in northern California around 1900. The main character is Jim Fallon, a timber baron who has recently moved to the state from Wisconsin. Fallon's motive is to take advantage of a new law which will allow him to stake a claim to the area's dense forests. Fallon especially has his eyes on the giant redwoods, the world's largest (and among its oldest) trees which he believes will net him a handsome profit. There is, however, a problem. A religious community have made their home in the forest and are determined to save the trees, which they regard as symbols of the power and majesty of God. So sacred are the trees to them that they even hold their services outdoors in a redwood grove rather than in a church. (The sect have some similarities with both the Amish and the Quakers, although they are probably not intended to be identified with either). A further complication arises when Fallon falls for Alicia, an attractive young widow who is a member of the sect.
In the first half of the film Fallon is portrayed as a rogue, smooth and plausible but unscrupulous and not always likable. About halfway through, however, he undergoes a change of heart and becomes one of the good guys, fighting alongside the sect in order to save the trees from his former associates, who turn out to be even more greedy and unscrupulous than he ever was.
The film has some good points. The photography of the Californian forests is well done and there are some good action sequences, including a scene where Kirk Douglas leaps onto a runaway train . The theme is a potentially interesting one; environmentalism was not as hot a topic in the early fifties as it has become since, so a film with a conservationist theme was something of a novelty. Moreover, the film gives an interesting slant to the subject, showing the religious roots of the environmental movement.
Despite this, however, the film also has its weaknesses. The plot is excessively complex; at times it seems as though you need a thorough knowledge of Californian land law in order to understand what is going on. It also goes through too many twists and turns, with characters assumed to be bad turning out to be good and vice versa, with abrupt changes of mood. At times it all seems fairly light-hearted and then turns into serious drama as two major characters meet violent deaths in quick succession. The acting is generally poor. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Douglas' best film or best performance, but the supporting cast are no better. Overall, "The Big Trees" tries to be unusual but ends up as just a standard action movie, and not a very good one. 5/10