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Film: The Big Country
I'm not responsible for what people think; only what I am.
James McKay

The Big Country is a 1958 American Western film directed by William Wyler. It stars Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, and Burl Ives. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for its outstanding musical score, and Ives won the award for Best Supporting Actor.

Wealthy, newly retired sea captain James McKay (Peck) travels to the American West to join his fiancée, Patricia (Baker), at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Terrill. Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey (Ives), the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. McKay gets caught up in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud.

McKay refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing to stop Hannassey's trouble-making son, Buck, from harassing him, and he declines a challenge by Terrill's foreman, Steve Leech (Heston), to ride an unruly horse. Patricia, Terrill and Leech consider this to be cowardly in view of the region's lawlessness.

One morning, McKay rides to the Big Muddy, and persuades the owner, Julie (Simmons), to sell him her land by promising to continue her policy of allowing both groups access to the river.

Needless to say, his plan doesn't end exactly as he'd hoped...

The film provides examples of:

  • Black and Gray Morality: Mr. Hannassey may be relentless, and he certainly won't win the "Father of the Year" award, but he's also a man of honor who always keeps his word and doesn't kill unless he must. Terrill is impulsive and prideful. Killing a bunch of innocent cattle is one thing. Then he goes and leads a lot of good men to their deaths, just so he can kill one man!
  • California Doubling: Averted; this is a William Wyler film we're talking about.
  • Captain Obvious: The locals all seem very intent on pointing out one thing:
    It's a Big Country!
    • It must have become extremely annoying for a former sailor, who navigated ships across the Atlantic, and maybe the Pacific, to be told how Big the Country was.
  • Cattle Baron: Both the Terrill and Hannassey families.
  • City Slicker
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Don't judge Mr. Hannassey or his family by the way they look, or how they live. Except Buck, of course.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lots of 'em.
  • Dirty Coward: Everyone thinks McKay is this when really he's just smart enough to not waste his time getting into fights over relatively minor offenses (though he probably would have had good cause to get into fighting mode when the Hannassey boys started getting physical with him in the opening). In reality, it is Buck who is the dirty coward.
  • Foil: Mr. Hennessy and Major Terrill are this for each other. Hennessey is rough, crude and unkept, but has an iron-rigid code of honor that he abides by. Terrill is smooth and has the trappings and pretensions of a gentleman but is a lot more underhanded, devious and unethical.
  • The Gunslinger: Buck sure thinks he is.
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: What Buck actually is.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Steve Leech has the hots for Patricia Terrill, despite her less than pleasant personality and the fact that she only wants McKay (initially).
  • Jerk Ass: Buck (although by the film's end, he's more of a Jerkass Woobie) and both Terrills
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Steve Leech and Mr. Hannassey.
  • Offing the Offspring: Mr. Hannassey's code of honor forces him to kill Buck.
  • One Bullet Left: McKay's father's dueling pistols.
  • Only Sane Man: McKay, with Julie as the Only Sane Woman.
    • Steve Leech has shades of this as well due to his obvious discomfort with Major Terrill's tactics.
  • Riding into the Sunset: More like riding into the valley below.
  • Running Gag: Everyone around McKay is quick to inform him that the area he has moved to is 'a big country'. As McKay is a former sea captain who has crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in his day, he's not quite as impressed by this as they may have been hoping.
  • Schoolmarm: Julie.
  • Showdown at High Noon
  • The So-Called Coward: McKay, who refuses to get provoked into needless confrontations, develops this reputation — but actually, he's just savvy enough to realize that the entire mess is just two bitter, hate-filled old men trying to get others to do their fighting for them.
  • Take a Third Option: Subverted. McKay tries this; it dosen't work out for Hannassey and Terrill.
  • Temporary Love Interest: McKay came to the west to marry spoiled Patricia and ends up with honest Julie. Score one for the honest folks!
  • Underestimating Badassery: The entire movie basically revolves around everyone in the county applying this to McKay. They assume that because he doesn't throw himself into meaningless fights at the drop of a hat and doesn't explode with violence just because someone calls him a mean name, he's a weakling and a coward. They assume that when he goes out for a ride he's gotten hopelessly lost in the unfamiliar country (not an entirely invalid concern, to be fair), not stopping to think for a moment that a former ship's captain might have some skill in what it takes to effectively navigate featureless, unfamiliar territory. And so on. He proves them wrong every time.
  • What You Are in the Dark: McKay finally decides to accept Leech's challenge to a fist-fight, on condition that they take it into the rough lands early one morning when and where no one will see them. Leech cockily believes that this is because McKay doesn't want anyone to see him get the stuffing knocked out of him. One roughly even fight later, he realizes that it's actually because McKay wasn't interested in grandstanding and had nothing to prove to anyone else but himself. Following this, while the two are not exactly friends, Leech does come to respect McKay a bit more.

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alternative title(s): The Big Country
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