The Big Country (Blu-ray)
Directed by William Wyler
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 165 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English, 1.0 Spanish, French
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 16.98
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Review Date: May 27, 2011
Westerns don’t come much bigger or more magnificent than William Wyler’s The Big Country. Featuring an all-star cast and locations that take one’s breath away at a consistent pace, The Big Country has everything one could want from a classic oater: great, interesting characters, enough rivalries to populate three lesser movies, shootouts, ambushes, fistfights, and enough comic moments and romance to satisfy just about every member of the family. It’s long, and it sometimes drags just a bit in its sprawling narrative that’s large enough that even this big movie can’t always contain it, but in the final analysis, there aren’t too many westerns any bigger or any better than this one.
After leaving his shipping empire back east, James McKay (Gregory Peck) comes west to marry his fiancé Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) whose father Henry (Charles Bickford) is the wealthiest land baron in the country. But once there, McKay doesn’t seem to measure up to the code of the west as seen by the residents: he doesn’t feel compelled to demonstrate his manhood by riding wild broncos or engaging in fistfights, and the spoiled, selfish Patricia feels humiliated by his living by his own code of conduct instead of behaving the way her martinet father had brought her up believing in. McKay finds the area embroiled in a civil war over watering rights at the Big Muddy, a vast ranch owned by town schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and lusted after by both the Terrills and the more rough-hewn Hannassey clan headed by the blustering Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and his bullying son Buck (Chuck Connors). Trying to calm the tempers of both families seems an impossible job, especially from a dude from back east whom no one seems to respect.
Director William Wyler takes every opportunity he can to foster the notion of the “big” in The Big Country by showing us vast grassy vistas and towering rocky canyons and often arranging shots that put his actors in situations where they’re positively dwarfed by the size and scope of their surroundings (there is also a running gag where almost every character tells McKay how big the country is). In one of his most effective sequences, he stages and shoots a fight between Peck’s McKay and tough ranch foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) in immense long shots with only a smattering of closer cuts and almost in silence except for the sounds of thudding fists or grunts and groans from the combatants. Compared to the way most fights in movies are filmed with nonstop music and enormous sound effects, this majestic sequence is one of several gems in the gigantic panorama of this movie. Wyler also shoots a jaunty montage of McKay in private riding, falling, and eventually taming the wild stallion Old Thunder (foolishly interrupted for some reason by some other business which breaks the spell of showing us this fiercely determined man finally gaining the upper hand after continuous, painful failure). And the climactic raid on Blanco Canyon is also shot and scored to emphasize the tension of the moment and leading to its inevitable conclusion once again emphasizing size by his choice of long, overhead shots which accentuate these land giants as their actual selves minimized by the towering rocks surrounding them.
Gregory Peck once again plays a man true to his own soul and one who marches to the beat of his own drummer. As usual, his quiet forcefulness is appealing and a decided contrast to the typical range cowboy which Charlton Heston plays in one of his strongest-ever performances: cocky and unsympathetic in his devotion to the code of the west. Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons are also the antithesis of one another: Baker spoiled and callowly emotional and Simmons mature and earnest judging people on merit and not appearance. Burl Ives, who won an Oscar as the Hannassey patriarch (and was likely aided to victory by giving a similarly dynamic performance as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that same year), makes a memorable range rascal matched every step of the way by the dictatorial Charles Bickford as the stubborn and unreasonable Henry Terrill. Chuck Connors does well as the blustery Buck, hiding his cowardice behind a fast gun and his father’s men. Alfonso Bedoya handles some funny lines and reactions as ranch hand Ramón Guiteras.
The Technirama aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been delivered in 1080p using the AVC codec. It’s true, the credit sequence is dusty and filled with small scratches, but once clear of it, the image is quite beautiful with excellent sharpness and tons of detail, especially seen in the rocky Blanco Canyon as well as in facial features and clothing. Color saturation levels are quite 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 extended running time. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix has decent fidelity for a track of this age, and thankfully there are no age-related audio artifacts like hiss, crackle, flutter, or hum 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.
“Fun in The Big Country” is a behind-the-scenes trifle shot to publicize the movie. Jean Simmons narrates some staged behind-the-scenes activities featuring the stars of the picture occupied in other pursuits between shots. This 480i vignette runs 5 ¼ minutes.
A TV spot ad runs 1 minute in 480i.
The theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs for 3 minutes.
4/5 (not an average)
The Big Country is a great film, and the Blu-ray release does it proud in terms of picture and sound. The bonus features are fairly forgettable. The movie cries out for a learned audio commentary filled with decent analyses and stories of behind-the-scenes activities to give the film the respect it deserves. Still, it’s definitely a recommended disc.