William Wyler’s The Big Country, from 1958, could almost serve as a
textbook on how to shoot a Western — it has some of the most amazing
images in the history of the genre. Unfortunately, it’s not a very
good Western, not a very good film of any kind, and ends up being
Like John Ford, Wyler started out in the silent era directing
low-budget Westerns at Universal. He graduated to more prestigious
material in the sound era but returned to the Western occasionally for
A-pictures in the genre, and made some fine ones, like The Westerner
with Gary Cooper.
The Big Country was a prestigious Western all the way, co-produced as
an independent film by Wyler and the film’s star Gregory Peck. It had
a first-rate supporting cast including Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons
and Burl Ives.
Its story strove for the grandeur of a saga, and that perhaps was the
cause of its downfall as a film. It proceeds at the stately pace of an
epic and clocks in at over two and a half hours, but it doesn’t have
the power or range of an epic, being a somewhat stodgy melodrama about
a feud between two ranching families over access to water for their cattle.
Peck plays a peaceably inclined Easterner who’s about to marry into one
of the families and isn’t impressed by the code of honor behind all the
violence he sees. He gets mixed up in a couple of inconvenient love
triangles as the range war rages and eventually proves his manhood on
his own terms.
These are all familiar Western themes but they seem to have been
cobbled together without much conviction. The central love story is
satisfying but takes a long time to get under way.
We are left with . . . the big country, shot magnificently by Wyler in
his usual elegant style, with stunning tracking and deep-focus shots in
spectacular scenery recording beautifully choreographed action playing
out in vast spaces. It’s breathtaking, visually, but since we’re not
deeply invested in the story, the visuals have a limited impact. We’re
seduced into magical spaces where nothing all that exciting happens
emotionally. Big country, big production — little movie.