Kino’s new release of The Big Country, the classic William Wyler-directed western with a great cast led by Gregory Peck, is a tremendous improvement over the previous Blu-ray edition. Not only correcting the technical flaws of the earlier release, this new disc also includes a plethora of quality bonus features.
The Production: 4/5
Director William Wyler’s 1958 production of The Big Country is a fascinating film that takes the American western genre out for a unique ride. Whereas the common story in many western pictures is for the city boy to travel out west and fall in line with the customs and stereotypes that come with such a move, ultimately accepting that the western way of doing things is superior to the city way, this film turns that old cliche on its head. Instead, The Big Country is a thoughtful meditation on avoiding conflict and not giving into violence, and how a little bit of civilization can go a long way.
James McKay (played with great restraint and charm by Gregory Peck, who also produced) made his living on the east coast at a successful shipping company, and has just traveled out west to join his fiancé Patricia (Carroll Baker), who lives on an enormous cattle ranch run by her father Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), who is known as “The Major.” But while the Major and Patricia live a life of comfort and luxury, all is not well in the area, as the Major has been locked in a feud with neighboring rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, in a mesmerizing performance) for as long as anyone can remember. Though the Major’s foreman Steve (Charlton Heston, tightly wound in a rare supporting role) tries to impress upon McKay the rules of the road out in the west, McKay himself wants no part of this feud and believes the violence to be a waste. At several instances, McKay is provoked by Hannassey’s son Buck (Chuck Connors), and McKay’s reluctance to defend himself baffles his fiancé and everyone from her side. Of more appeal is Patricia’s dearest friend Julie Maragon (a radiant Jean Simmons), who owns a ranch that stands between the Major and the Hannasseys, and whom both groups rely on for water for the cattle. Both sides want to buy Julie’s land, but she refuses to sell, determined to keep the peace between the two clans.
With its nearly three hour running time, The Big Country is packed with characters, conflicts and ideas. It’s a film that has any number of easily recognizable flaws, and yet manages to transcend them all. Despite being overstuffed with more characters than it knows what to do with and a narrative momentum which lurches along in fits and starts, no scene feels unimportant. In bonus features included on the disc, both director Wyler and producer/star Peck comment that the film is too long, but in watching the film, individual scenes play so well that it’s easy to understand why there weren’t obvious cuts to make.
Wyler is rightfully considered one of the all-time great directors, and his work here lives up to his reputation. His use of the camera is extraordinary. Though he has an outstanding, easily recognizable and altogether attractive cast at his disposal, he’s never afraid to look beyond “movie star” staging and closeups to better tell the story. For instance, in one key sequence, Heston is desperate to fight Peck, believing that a fight is the only way to settle the two men’s differences. Peck is reluctant to engage, but is finally willing to do so. But when the big moment comes, Wyler’s camera shoots the action from far away, revealing the fight to be not a glamorous battle between two top stars, but an exercise in stupidity. By showing Peck and Heston not as larger than life but as specks in a giant frame filled with endless nature, Wyler demonstrates just how meaningless violence can be. They can pummel each other to their heart’s content, but it won’t make the slightest impact on the world around them.
As McKay, Gregory Peck delivers a confident performance filled with the certainty of a man utterly sure of himself, but with the charm of someone who knows that it’s better to win people over by small gesture rather than pronounced statement. By taking on a supporting role, Charlton Heston is able to express more nuance and ambiguity than his better known performances would allow. Chuck Connors is all witless energy and raw nerve, impulse and desire without sense or control. Carroll Baker turns in a full, layered performance, allowing us to see why Peck would be interested in her while slowly revealing herself to be something other than what he expected. Jean Simmons plays her part with radiance and intelligence, a woman who understands her world both intellectually and emotionally. Charles Bickford brings a believable formality and outward strength to his role, only revealing his character’s stubbornness as the film progresses. Best of all might be Burl Ives as Bickford’s sworn rival; Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and rightfully so. He dominates the screen whenever he appears, stealing each of his scenes whether he’s called in for a dramatic monologue or a quiet gesture, and everything in between.
In the end, if the film runs a little too long, if it seems to dance around its points rather than making them explicitly clear, if the pacing can seem to run counter to the plotting, somehow none of it matters. When Peck strides across the screen with his unflappable poise, and when Ives bellows into the frame, all of these quibbles and shortcomings fall away. This is a gigantic film making a claim for the soul of the American west, and ambition like that can’t be fit into tidy order. This is a big film making an argument for small acts of decency and restraint. Whatever minor faults can be found in The Big Country are ultimately outweighed by its moral clarity as exemplified by Gregory Peck’s righteous performance.
3D Rating: NA
The Big Country is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in a nearly pristine transfer. Though it shows the very occasional blemish, the overwhelming majority of the presentation is beautiful to behold. Colors and black levels are strong, contrast is pleasing, and the overall detail is marvelous. Most importantly, technical flaws from a previous Blu-ray release have been completely fixed here, making this edition a major upgrade.
The monaural audio is presented in a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track which my receiver decoded into the center channel. The track is in pristine condition, and does not exhibit any age-related artifacts. Dialogue is well recorded and easy to discern in the mix, and Jerome Moross’s outstanding score sounds incredible.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling – Frayling’s commentary is an enjoyable blend of historical trivia about the film’s production, comparisons between the finished film and the novel it was based on, and a fair analysis of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. The commentary is mostly scene specific. Frayling does slow down a little in the last hour (understandable given the length of the film), but the track is rarely silent for more than a moment. This was a worthwhile track which builds upon information provided on some of the other supplements while offering some unique insights of its own.
Directed By William Wyler (58:09, SD) – This vintage documentary, originally aired as part of the PBS series American Masters, is an outstanding look at Wyler’s career. In addition to containing vintage film clips and interviews with many of Wyler’s colleagues and collaborators, the piece also includes Wyler’s last recorded interview, recorded only days before the director’s death. He’s a lucid, charming and intelligent figure. Fans of Wyler will love this documentary, and those new to Wyler will come away wanting to see more of his work.
Wyler Doc Outtakes w/ Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Billy Wilder (22:46, SD) – The outtakes from Peck and Heston specifically cover their work on The Big Country and are essential viewing. The comments from Wilder are more generalized but entirely worthwhile.
Interview with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck and Tony Peck (12:26, HD) – Gregory Peck’s children reminisce about their father and his work on The Big Country. Their interviews add context to Peck’s decision to make the film and elaborate on the film’s production history and themes.
Interview with Fraser C. Heston (11:05, HD) – Charlton Heston’s son recollects his father’s participation in The Big Country. Fraser discusses how the role was unusual in his father’s career and how it laid the groundwork for future film projects.
Interview with Catherine Wyler (12:44, HD) – The director’s daughter recounts Wyler’s early work in westerns, and how that informed his participation in The Big Country, as well as Wyler’s history with Peck.
Fun in the Country – Featurette (5:13, SD) – This vintage black & white featurette, narrated by Jean Simmons, shows the cast and crew relaxing on set during production.
Larry Cohen on Chuck Connors (2:46, SD) – This 2012 interview with Cohen reflects back on Connors in The Big Country and suggests that Connor had greater potential than his career showed.
Animated Image Gallery I (2:32, HD) – A series of black & white production stills that play with selections from the film’s score.
Animated Image Gallery II (4:12, HD) – A series of color production stills that play with selections from the film’s score.
TV Spot (00:58, SD) – An original television commercial for the film’s ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast premiere, presented in 4×3 black & white.
Trailer (2:56, HD) – The original theatrical trailer is a surprisingly accurate representation of the film.
The Big Country is a unique western in which director William Wyler and star Gregory Peck are able to examine and rebut many of the conventions of the American western. Though the film at times threatens to sprawl out of the control of its creators, it’s nonetheless captivating at every moment. In a film filled with great performances by an incredible cast, Burl Ives delivers the most monumental performance of all, while Peck radiates a moral decency that has timeless appeal. This new Blu-ray edition from Kino is an impressive release which both fixes the technical flaws of the previous edition while also adding a plethora of high quality new and vintage bonus features. Fans of the film and owners of the previous edition should not hesitate to double dip on this new release. Though 2018 is barely past its halfway mark, this new release of The Big Country will undoubtedly be a contender for the year’s greatest upgrade.
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