Friday, November 4, 2011

The Big Country: A Big Mess

In the 1950s movies had to be big to compete with the rival challenge of television, and nobody could make big movies like director William Wyler, the guiding light behind such blockbusters as Ben-Hur, Funny Girl, Friendly Persuasion and The Best Years of Our Lives.

In fact The Big Country is so big it takes two blogs to spotlight it! Join us now as Bijou Blog's Victoria Balloon discusses big backlot drama, then mosey on over to Movies Unlimited for more, but don’t get lost on the way — it’s a Big Internet!

William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958) is one of the epic films of the 1950s, and a thorough departure from the two-reel Westerns of his early career at Universal Studios. The film also differs thematically from those early oaters — Jim McKay’s (Gregory Peck) imperturbable temper is unfathomable to his fiancĂ©e Pat (Carroll Baker) and her father Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), but as the drama of two clans fighting each other for water rights unfolds, McKay must decide just how much violence a pacifist must use to keep the peace.

Despite The Big Country having an all-star cast and a two-time Oscar-winning director (Wyler filmed Ben-Hur the following year), reviews of the film ranged from hand-clapping to raspberries. Many praised the cinematography and the Jerome Moross score, but box office returns barely put the $3.1 million film back in the black, though it did rank 11th in Variety’s annual listing. The New York Times called it “the most bellicose hymn to peace ever seen.”

From the outset the film did have one huge fan: President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He gave it four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made. My number one favorite film." The Big Country has been described as an allegory of Cold War politics, with the role of Major Terrill as Eisenhower, but more than likely Eisenhower identified more with McKay — stuck in the middle of warring nations, trying to keep the peace.

Everything about the film was big. Shot in “Technirama” with an aspect ratio of 2.55 to 1 on the negatives (the highest ratio ever used in film), it had a runtime of 168 minutes. Interior shots were done at the Goldwyn Studios, but exterior shots were done in the Mojave Desert and a 3,000 acre ranch east of Stockton. (Because apparently, California is more “Texas” than Texas.) The principle cast members were stars at the top of their game, the budget was there, the reputations were there… And so was the big behind-the-scenes drama.

The studio system that had created the Hollywood illusion of the 1930s fell apart in the 1950s through a combination of legal action against monopolies and actors, writers, and directors wanting more control over their work. Big name actors and directors formed production companies to become producers of their own films. After his successes in Roman Holliday (1953) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Gregory Peck formed Anthony Productions (named after his son) in order to work on a project with his friend, director William Wyler. Peck and Wyler became close while making Roman Holiday, and the two men and their wives often dined out together, their families taking vacations in Sun Valley.

Creating the screenplay for The Big Country quickly became a problem. There were a total of seven writers who worked on the project (including Leon Uris), but the resulting script was overlong and unsatisfactory to both producers; however, shooting had to begin. In addition to being the star, Peck and the original author Donald Hamilton also worked on the script at night after the day’s shooting, but neither was a screenwriter, and other writers needed to be brought in.

This meant that each morning the actors could be presented with lines and scenes completely different from those they had memorized the night before. Jean Simmons in particular found this taxing. “We'd have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning. It made the acting damned near impossible.”

Peck was not satisfied with the ending of the film, but Carroll Baker was pregnant, with a contractual stop-date. Even after shooting the ending, Peck was not satisfied with the story, but Baker was no longer available. Her character seems to literally disappear from the film, and the loose ends bothered both Peck and reviewers.

Wyler was an excellent director whose three Oscars are second only to John Ford’s four. More actors won Oscars under Wyler’s direction than any other director (14 out of 36 nominations), yet “90 take Willy” was terrible at giving actors input. Take after take, his only directions or comments were “Do it again.” Wyler seemed to believe that when actors got angry after multiple takes, they played their parts without artifice on a “truer” level.

He got results, but tempers flared. Jean Simmons said “The atmosphere [on set] felt very dodgy — the sort of prevailing tension that invites paranoia, causes you to wonder, ‘What have I done?’ … I guess Willy was in a position to know what it took to achieve great performances, but he also seemed bent on making things difficult.”

Charlton Heston recalled a fight scene with Carroll Baker in which Wyler secretly told him not to let Baker go. As Heston was 6’3” to Baker’s 5’ 5”, this was not difficult; at one point, he literally holds both her wrists in one hand. After multiple takes with bruised wrists, in tears Baker complained that Heston would not let her go. “I don’t want him to,” replied Wyler, “I want you to get out of it yourself.”

Wyler was in charge of directing with the final say in artistic matters, while Peck secured the cast, script, publicity through United Artists, wardrobe and makeup, and technical personnel. But script issues, the remote location, direction problems with Baker, Simmons, and Bickford, and running over schedule took their toll on the two men’s friendship.

The final straw was when Peck wanted to reshoot a scene in which Peck felt he looked like “a cretin.” Strangely, Wyler was unwilling to reshoot, and Peck literally walked off the set of his own movie. His agent finally coaxed him back, but the damage was done — Peck and Wyler were no longer on speaking terms. Eventually Peck broke the silence and congratulated Wyler with his success on Ben-Hur (1959), but Wyler’s only response was “Thanks, but I’m still not reshooting the scene.”

The one principle actor who seemed to have no problems with Wyler was Burl Ives. Indeed, Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and almost stole the show in the role of Rufus Hannassey, mirroring his earlier performance that year in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a sort of rustic Big Daddy of the trashy Hannassey clan.

Over fifty years later The Big Country is still absolutely worth viewing. Modern audiences have a greater appreciation for the ambiguity and unresolved conflicts in the film that bothered initial reviewers. The behind the scene drama only underscores the monumental task of making such a movie and, despite some displays of temper, the skill and professionalism of those involved. Possibly the most amazing thing about the movie is that it turned out as well as it did.

Bijou writer Victoria Balloon muses further on the movie’s many merits beyond the mess over at Movie Fanfare, the Movies Unlimited blog.

Here you can watch an incisive interview with Gregory Peck, who discusses the troubles on the set of The Big Country between himself and William Wyler. Afterwards, be sure to check out what John McElwee has to say in "Shrunken Epics Reclaimed" over at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

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