Updated: Jun 15, 2018
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“THE BIG COUNTRY: 60TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
Blu-ray and DVD; 1958; unrated; streaming via Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Commentary with British author and educator Sir Christopher Frayling
ON THE SURFACE, it was the perfect partnership between producer/director William Wyler and actor Gregory Peck.
They hit it off filming “Roman Holiday” (1953), which received 11 Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Actress for first-timer Audrey Hepburn. Peck was Wyler’s first choice to play the American newspaperman who escorts the young princess for a day on the town in the Eternal City.
Wyler and Peck agreed to co-produce a future project, first optioning a book, then a Broadway play. They settled on a Western, “The Big Country,” based on the short story “Ambush at Blanco Canyon” serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. It would feature stars Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors and Charlton Heston, who had recently played Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”
Peck and Wyler decided to use the new, bigger and higher resolution Technirama camera, fitted with an anamorphic lens. The 35mm film ran horizontally, utilizing eight perforated frames, compared to the normal four running vertically. It produced a negative twice the height of CinemaScope with less noticeable film grain. Legendary designer Saul Bass (“Exodus,” 1962; “Anatomy of a Murder,” 1959) created the opening title sequence. It reeled out against a brilliant score composed by Jerome Moross, a former student of Aaron Copland. Along with “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Big Country’s” signature theme is considered a classic, one of best ever written.
It’s the tale of two rival Texas families: The Terrill clan, whose patriarch is cattle baron Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), owner of a half-million-acre ranch. Terrill’s nearest neighbor – still miles away – is Rufus Hannassey (Ives) and his sons. Ives’ fiery performance won the folk singer an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The feud between the families over water rights has been brewing for years, especially during the dry, hot summer months. They both have permission to access the “Big Muddy,” which winds through land inherited by schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Simmons). Heston plays Steve Leech, the Terrill foreman and the Major’s surrogate son. Peck is the central character, tenderfoot Jim McKay, a retired East Coast sea captain. McKay arrives to marry Terrill’s spoiled daughter, Pat (Baker, who was pregnant during filming). She wants her future husband to be as tough and powerful as her daddy.
Film historian Sir Christopher Frayling reveals Wyler’s description of McKay’s character in his commentary: “[He’s] a man refusing to act according to accepted standards of behavior. Customs of the Old West were sort of debunked.”
“My dad thought of it as a great story within an underlying theme of non-violence, which was a running theme of his life,” says Peck’s daughter, Cecilia, in a recent interview on the Blu-ray. Her dad trusted Wyler, and the two worked on the script for months, even though it had already gone through seven writers. But they didn’t have an ending, and kept tinkering with the screenplay every night of the production. Carey Peck, the actor’s youngest son, says, “The whole film is anchored by a series of personal confrontations and how a man stands up to a duel … McKay is taunted and pushed to fight back by the locals, and he doesn’t respond.”
Wyler and his crew started filming during the summer of 1957, just east of Stockton, in California’s Central Valley. The strife between actor and director began when Peck first arrived at the Terrill ranch set to find only 400 of the 4,000 cows he ordered on the distant horizon. Wyler put the brakes on what he considered an excess, with the $10 a head rental fee. He was trying to cut corners, knowing their $1.7 million budget wouldn’t cover the herd – especially since they were using the larger, more costly film stock. Wyler’s directorial style usually demanded more than 20-takes per scene. The final budget hit $4 million, which was huge in the late 1950s.
The final straw between Peck and Wyler came when Peck demanded to reshoot a scene in which he wasn’t happy with his performance. Wyler insisted they had it. “My dad walked off the set. It angered him and it frustrated him,” Carey Peck says. The actor/producer ended drove back to L.A., and the two men never spoke another word to each other for the rest of the shoot. Their rift lasted over three years and they vowed to never work together again.
“It was sad and they regretted it. It blew up a lovely friendship, but they got over it. I believe he would say today, it’s one of the films he’s most proud of. It told a great story that reflected values he held himself.” — Cecilia Peck
The Blu-ray also includes a 60-minute standard-def 1980s documentary on Wyler’s career featuring interviews with Peck, Heston, directors John Huston and Billy Wilder, Bette Davis, Lawrence Olivier and others. Wyler won three directing Academy Awards during his career for “Mrs. Miniver” (1942); “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946); and “Ben Hur” (1959). He was nominated for nine more golden statues including: “Roman Holiday,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Detective Story,” “Friendly Persuasion” and his first “Dodsworth.”
A short featurette, “Wyler’s West,” includes another recent interview with Wyler’s daughter Catherine, who speaks about her father’s early years making two-reel Westerns during the 1920s. “That’s how he learned to become a director,” she says. She talks at length about his perfectionism: “He would keep filming until he was satisfied. He didn’t want to tell an actor what to do, and they would be so frustrated. He would just say do it again, without telling them what he wanted. He wanted them to find it on their own.”
Reviews were mixed when “The Big Country” premiered, but it ended up seventh in the overall 1958 box office numbers. Wyler gave a copy of “The Big Country” to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who cherished it and showed it on four consecutive nights at the White House. It became his all-time favorite movie; the onscreen feud may have seemed symbolic of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
Kino Lorber/MGM doesn’t give a clue if the 60th Anniversary Edition was mastered in 4K or 2K, but whatever was used resulted in an obvious upgrade from the 2011 Blu-ray. The picture is big and bold, the film grain is more controlled, and the overall color toning and brightness are balanced, compared to the earlier muddy-looking version. Sharpness is substantially more defined than other films on Blu-ray from the late 1950s. Only the 4K Ultra HD release of Oscar-winner “The Bridge of the River Kwai” (1957) from Sony beats “Big Country” in sharpness and color toning. “The Big Country” should be considered for its own 4K release, for an ultimate home theater experience.
The audio is simple, with a majority of its rousing Oscar-nominated score coming from the front three speakers, which balances well with the dialogue.
SIDE NOTE: While filming “Ben Hur” in Rome, Wyler discovered he needed an additional short cutaway shot of Heston as Leech, before “Big Country” hit theaters in the U.S. The setup was filmed in the arena where the famous chariot race was being filmed. One of the assistants who helped was a young Italian production assistant. That assistant happened to be Sergio Leone who would go on to make “A Fistful of Dollars,” introducing Spaghetti Westerns to the world. This 12-second shot would be his first exposure to filming an American western.
“I love the thought of Charlton Heston taking off his toga to do that scene,” Frayling says during his commentary.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer