Some Westerns show that violence in the Old West was heroic and inevitable. Some Westerns argue that the violence was horrific and regrettable, but these movies (“Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Unforgiven”) still feature a whole lot of fun violence.
“The Big Country” is a unique third way. It’s a utopian fantasy where an unarmed man defeats all the bad guys with just his wits and his morality.
It’s kind of like the Gospel of John, if the book ended with Jesus convincing Pontius Pilate to resign and then taking over as the benevolent ruler of Judea.
The film is original, engrossing, well-acted, and pretty ridiculous.
It’s 1880s Texas. “The Big Country” begins with retired Sea Captain Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) meeting up with his fiancée Patricia Terrill. Patricia is the daughter of Major Terrill: the richest rancher in the county.
The odd couple met briefly out east and fell in love. But now that she’s seeing Jim back in her world, she’s having second thoughts.
In lawless rural Texas, men bully the new guy until he fights or draws a gun. And Jim refuses to do either. Everyone assumes he is a coward. But Jim is the bravest among them.
And the wisest. Jim isn’t just a conscientious objector; he has a plan to bring lasting peace to the region.
There is a decades-long war between the two main rancher families: the rich, powerful Terrills and the poor, trashy Hannasseys.
There are no police for hundreds of miles. So violent vigilantism is the only law enforcement, and family feuds are unavoidable. The two rival clans battle it out over access to the all-important watering hole for their cattle.
Jim refuses to fight along with the Terrill gang. He observes that the feud is nothing more than a battle of wills between the two stubborn patriarchs: Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey.
Gregory Peck’s Jim is so saintly that the audience can’t really relate to him. Legendary director William Wyler understood that. The unexpected emotional center of “The Big Country” is old, gruff Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives).
Ives earned his only Oscar by showing us how even gang leaders in the Old West were victims of the culture of violence.
Rufus raised his clan in a lawless, uncivilized region and now he’s suffering with the consequences. His own sons are drunken macho primates.
To his existential horror, Rufus ends up siding with Jim Mckay over his own children.
In “The Big Country,” life never feels cheap. I don’t think a single man even gets shot during the first two hours.
The great William Wyler gave us a completely unique vision: a society with plenty of guns and no police where good men keep order with their words and their morality. I don’t believe that this could ever happen in real life but it was neat to see it on screen.