The Big Country may not be William Wyler’s best work, but it’s certainly illustrative of his style. The rather simple story is dwarfed by the breathtaking scenery, with its wide vistas and rugged canyon. In fact, its vastness is a running joke throughout the film. Gregory Peck’s character, James McKay, declares he’s seen such vastness before—on the ocean.
James McKay is a New England sea captain who goes out west to reunite with his fiancée, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker). He’s completely out of place with his eastern hat and his refusal to abide by the tough guy persona expected of “real men” in Marlboro country. His attitude quickly incurs the wrath of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman at the huge spread run by Pat’s father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). As such, McKay quickly finds himself in the middle of a long bubbling feud between Terrill, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and his bullying son Buck (Chuck Connors) over a watering hole. To prevent a Western war, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) holds onto the property and allows the two feuding families to water their cattle.
The universal issue of the “haves” and the “have nots” runs through the story—Bickford represents the wealthy rancher with the large herd of cattle and fine western mansion while the Hannasseys are living the prototypical lower class style. Still, Hannassey patriarch Rufus preaches a strict western code of honor; one where men are expected to treat each other fairly and always do the right thing. Burl Ives performance, which steals the show whenever he’s on screen, is reminiscent of his role as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Gregory Peck as he often did, plays a man who stays true to his beliefs. His quiet forcefulness is in marked contrast to the typical range cowboy played by Charlton Heston. Heston’s Steve Leech is cocky and unsympathetic in his devotion to the code of the west. Even the females are the antithesis of one another: Baker’s Pat Terrill is unflinchingly spoiled, while Jean Simmons’ Julie Maragon is fair; judging people on merit rather than appearance.
Despite its largely predictable plot, The Big Country contains some solid acting, and some truly memorable scenery. As Charlton Heston explained after a special tribute showing at the landmark Egyptian Theater, “it’s connected with the American ethos—America was made for Westerns.” While The Big Country is not a great western, anyone who enjoys the genre should give this one a look.
The Technirama aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been delivered in 1080p using the AVC codec. The credit sequence is dusty and filled with small scratches, but once clear of it, the image is quite nice, with excellent sharpness and solid detail. Color saturation levels are rich and expressive, and flesh tones are accurately conveyed. Black levels aren’t always optimum, and in darker scenes, there is clear evidence of banding in the image, but it isn’t noticeable elsewhere during the film’s running time.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix has decent fidelity for a track of this age, and there are no age-related audio artifacts like hiss, or crackle, to spoil the ambiance of the soundtrack. Music (the magnificent Jerome Moross score which has become legendary in the years since the film’s release), sound effects, and dialogue are all comfortably mixed in the track with the dialogue never drowned out by the other elements of the soundtrack.
English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Fun in The Big Country (SD; 5:12) is a vintage featurette (in black and white) narrated by Jean Simmons showing cast and crew killing time between takes doing things like playing gin rummy and chess.
- TV Spot (SD; 00:53)
- Trailer (HD; 2:53)