30 January 2006 | bkoganbing
"How Many Times Does A Man Have To Win You?"
The Big Country is one big and fun western with concurrent plot lines. The first is the struggle between two implacable enemies, Charles Bickford and Burl Ives. The second is a four sided romantic triangle involving Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll Baker with Chuck Connors trying to horn in.
William Wyler directed the almost three hour western with a sure hand and your interest does not wane for one minute in this film. Gregory Peck also was a co-producer on this film as well as the first billed. He had a hand in casting a lot of the film, specifically Burl Ives in his Academy Award winning performance as Rufus Hannessy.
It's the Terrills versus the Hannessys. Charles Bickford is the local Ponderosa owner Major Terrill. Presumably the title comes from the Civil War. Bickford does play Terrill with a military bearing. My guess is that he was a Yankee soldier.
The Hannessys would now be called white trash. They look like hillbilly folk who also came west for fame and fortune. They've also got a big spread in a place called Blanco Canyon. They hate the Yankee Major as much as he hates them.
Sitting between them is Jean Simmons who has inherited a modest piece of land that sits across a river that both outfits water their cattle on as per an agreement with her late grandfather. She doesn't work the land herself any more, she teaches school in town.
Simmons tries to keep above the feud. She is friends with Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford's daughter. She's been east and is bringing home a prospective bridegroom who is a former sea captain played by Gregory Peck. That doesn't sit well with Charlton Heston who is the Terrill foreman. He's got eyes on Baker himself and Chuck Connors who is Burl Ives eldest son has eyes for Simmons when he's not in the local bordello.
A lot of started and broken relationships and a few of the cast members being killed occurs in The Big Country. My favorite scene and line in the film is when Burl Ives gives some advice to Chuck Connors on how to woo and win Jean Simmons. His big advice is to show her how much you care by taking a bath occasionally.
Charlton Heston took a role that was fourth billed because he wanted the opportunity to work with William Wyler. That was one great career move because Wyler and he hit it off so well that Wyler signed him for the lead in his next film which turned out to be Ben-Hur. Heston in his memoirs, conservative as he became, says he also got along very well with Gregory Peck who he called a "thinking man's liberal."
Peck and Wyler had worked together previously on Roman Holiday and had done good work there and also hit it off. However with Peck as a co-producer as well as star they had some clashes on the set. One notable one involved Peck wanting to retake the carriage scene where the Hannessy brothers attack Peck and Baker on the way to the Bickford ranch. Peck wasn't satisfied and wanted a retake. Wyler who was legendary for doing scenes dozens of times until he got what he wanted refused. Later when shown the finished film, Wyler had edited out and around what Peck didn't like and it came out OK. They remained friends, but never worked together again.
Simmons as the independent minded school teacher and Baker as the spoiled daddy's little girl acquit themselves well in their roles. Baker is disappointed in Peck not seeing him as her ideal western man and Simmons upbraids her with the quote I put in the review title.
This is also the final film of Alfonso Bedoya who never did get a role in an American film as good as the one he had as Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Still this is a fine farewell performance to a very colorful and talented player.
When he's on the screen Burl Ives dominates and fills it and not just physically either. Rufus Hannessy may not be to the manor born, but he has his own sense of integrity and fair play. All that Burl Ives captured in Rufus and The Big Country is worth watching just for him alone.
And that Jerome Moross score; simply one of the best ever done in the history of film.