Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Big Country Blu-ray Review

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors teams with a cast of incredible screen legends for this bold, sweeping tale of a ship’s captain who ventures west to find a hotbed of jealousy, hatred and dangerous rivalries. As the reluctant hero is thrust into the maelstrom, he must summon all of his resolve to save not only his own life, but also the life of the woman he loves.  Four-time Academy Award Winner William Wyler directs this action-packed adventure that stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, and Burl Ives (in an Oscar-winning performance), this magnificently entertaining epic will take your breath away with it’s grand scale!

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

After leaving his family’s shipping business back east, James McKay (Gregory Peck) travels to the west to meet his fiancee’s family on their ranch.  His fiancee Patricia (Carrol Baker) idolizes her father and she is very anxious about James meeting her imperious father Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford).  She wants James to gain her father’s approval so much that it’s a little unsettling and only gets worse over time.  On the way to her family ranch, James and Patricia are intercepted by some local troublemaker brothers known as the Hannasseys – Buck (Chuck Connors), Rafe (Chuck Hayward), and Dude (Buff Brady).  The Hannassey brothers try to intimidate James and when that doesn’t work, they take his hat and rope him up which doesn’t resist.  They don’t realize that they’re dealing with the Ghandi of the west who feels no need to defend himself or his image which doesn’t sit well with Patricia.
The relationship between James and Patricia continues to worsen when he refuses to ride an untamed horse for the amusement of the ranch-hands and their foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston).  Steve has had his eye on Patricia for awhile and he isn’t happy that some eastern fop is about to marry her, so he starts deliberately antagonizing James to try to provoke a fight between them.  What Patricia, Henry, and Steve don’t understand is that while James may not comply with their wishes, it’s not because he can’t or is too weak to do it, but rather he would rather do it for himself and not them.  The fact that James’ father was killed in a meaningless duel also reinforces his convictions not to rise to the challenge to prove his manliness.  When the others head to the Hennessey ranch for retribution for Buck’s behavior, James decides to try to tame the wild horse that the others believed to be untameable.  After spending all day being thrown from the horse, James finally tames it with the only witness to the feat being a ranch hand named Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya).
The feud between the Terrills and the Hannasseys gets even more bitter as time goes on.  It originally started because of a fight over water rights at the Big Muddy, a ranch owned by a local schoolteacher named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons).  Since the river ran through her land, Julie didn’t mind that both the Terrills and the Hannasseys were able to draw from it but both of them wanted sole access.  That battle between Henry and the Hannassey patriarch Rufus (Burl Ives) has turned into a personal vicious war.  Their constant bickering has grown into a war between the families that just gets worse while James is there.  Once James realizes that the river is the biggest source of the two families fighting, he buys the Big Muddy ranch from Julie as a wedding present for Patricia.  He believes that if he owns the land the two have been fighting over and allows both equal access then the feud should be over.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand that their capriciousness or the deep hatred that each family feels towards each other that has gone on for too long for it to end.
When the Terrills return from harassing the Hannasseys, they discover that James isn’t at the ranch and didn’t let anyone know where he was going.  They have such a low opinion of him that they immediately believe he’s in trouble and Patricia orders Steve and his men to find him, not knowing that James wasn’t lost and was in fact over at the Big Muddy buying the land.  Steve, who was already unhappy with the upcoming marriage, gets severely pissed off at having to go look for James.  After searching for hours for James, they camp for the night and aren’t too happy when James saunters into their camp none the worse for wear.  James lets them know that he was never lost or in trouble since he had a map and a compass and didn’t need any help.  When Steve loses his cool and calls James a liar in from of Henry and Patricia, James seemingly lets it go much to Patricia’s disgust.  While he didn’t fight Steve then, he does wake him up early the next morning to fight him without an audience.  Their silent and morose fight ends in something of a draw and having proved his point, James decides to take break from the Terrills and Patricia and gets room in a hotel in town.
After talking with Julie, Patricia learns that James did actually go to the Big Muddy and that he bought it for her as a wedding present like he said he did.  She also learns about his taming of the horse from Ramon and she realizes that she was completely wrong about James.  Patricia goes to visit James at his hotel to patch things up but when she learns that he intends on allowing the Hannasseys access to the river, she becomes enraged and their engagement is forever broken.  James is resigned to it since he knows that the spoiled daddy’s girl that Patricia has become isn’t the right woman for him.  However,  the unselfish generous Julie is much more to his liking and she seems to be attracted to him as well.   When Julie is held hostage as a bargaining chip by the Hannasseys, the Terrills take advantage of the situation to decide to finally end the threat the Hannasseys pose once and for all.  The only person that can possibly stop the all out war between the two families is James McKay, the man that neither family has shown any respect to.
I knew nothing about this movie when I agreed to review it, but I accepted it because of this cast.  Gregory Peck was an incredible actor and not many could portray nobility as well as he could.  I figured this would be a standard western with white and black hatted going against each other but I was wrong.  This is movie could be a part of a double bill with Unforgiven, as both examine morality, what it means to be a man, and how violence begets more violence.   Gregory Peck is excellent as always as James taking abuse from everyone because he sticks to his principles.  Carroll Baker does a nice job playing the selfish and vindictive Patricia who is dismissive of anyone that doesn’t share the life philosophy taught to her by her father.  Charlton Heston also is good as the tough and jealous Steve who is really the perfect match for Patricia if only he had enough money for her to respect him.
Jean Simmons also does nice work as the only other sane voice in the region, while Chuck Connors makes for a believable bad guy who is only brave when he has backup or the upper hand.  Burl Ives won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as the stubborn but slightly sympathetic Rufus Hannessey.  Rufus has been pushed too far and too long by Henry and his thug-like sons are a disappointment to him.  The Big Country is a well directed film by William Wyler who does all he can to make the movie live up to the title.  With the film’s expansive vistas and magnificent canyons that are all captured in wide shots, Wyler keeps everything large scale.  Even the fight between James and Steve was filmed largely in wide angle shots without the usual Hollywood flair which show how little the fight ultimately means in comparison.
The movie’s almost a treatise on the code of the old west and how different men interpreted it in various ways. While Rufus may not be above holding a woman hostage, he does draw the line on cheating during a duel.  Steve only grudgingly give his respect to James only after their hard fight.  The movie also shows how times are changing as the old ways of the west represented by Henry, Rufus and the others are being left behind as a new age is beginning with the well-groomed and polite James exemplifying the future.  Seeing the two sides clash, there really isn’t much doubt which side is going to win, since violence and lawlessness won’t be tolerated by a society that’s becoming more and more civilized.  This is a great movie filled with wonderful performances and I highly recommend it!

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (2.35:1) transfer doesn’t start off well but by the end of the movie it’s very satisfying.  The opening titles are dirty and scratched but once the movie begins, it becomes a very enjoyable print.  The transfer offers some excellent detail and sharpness in both visuals and textures.  Colors are rich and varied and flesh levels are natural and consistent throughout the movie.  Black levels aren’t as consistently dark as I would have liked but it’s only more noticeable because the rest of the movie looks so good.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

The Big Country’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is also pretty good for a movie this old and it’s free of the usual blemishes that older movies frequently have, since there’s thankfully no hiss or crackle present in this mix.  Dialogue is clear and easy to understand and is never overshadowed by the film’s sound effects or music.  The score from Jerome Moross also sounds very good and is well balanced with the rest of the mix.  This mix may not pack a punch like newer mixes, but it straddles the line between being true to its original mix and being cleaned up for modern audiences well.

Special Features (2 out of 5 stars) 

This is the most disappointing section of the movie since there isn’t much and what’s there isn’t that great or in high definition with the exception of the theatrical trailer.
  • Fun in The Big Country – This is one of those behind the scenes looks at the movie where everything is staged in advance with some jokey narration by Jean Simmons to go along with it.  We see the stars of the movie in apparent candid bits where they do stuff between shots.  At a little more than five minutes long, there isn’t much too it but fans might enjoy it.  While a part of me hates these kind of staged publicity segments, there’s another part that kind of misses these kind of studio fluff.  They may be have been staged but they were done so with an innocence that is lacking in today’s age of calculated electronic press kit media that follows the same bullet points every single time.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV spot

Final Thoughts (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This isn’t your usual western from the 50s which give the movie a more modern feel compared the other westerns from that era.  The Big Country is an early precursor to Unforgiven as both movies explore similar thematic territory so if you liked Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece then you should like this too.  Despite all of the issues that plagued this production (check out the videos below) the final result turned out great.  This new Blu-ray edition makes everything even better with it’s excellent picture and audio quality so if you haven’t seen this, I advise you to give it a shot and enjoy the great performances!
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