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Film / The Big Country

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"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, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, and Chuck Connors. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Jerome Moross's outstanding musical score, while Ives won the award for Best Supporting Actor.

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

McKay—who refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood through violence, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel—does nothing to stop Hannassey's trouble-making son, Buck (Connors), 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, another ranch which contains access to the area's only river, and is thus coveted by both Terrill and Hannassey. McKay persuades its owner, Julie Maragon (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:

  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    Patricia: If he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?
    Julie: If you love him, why would you think it? How many times does a man have to win you?
    • Also, McKay delivers one to Leech after the fight that Leech has been trying to provoke all movie ends with nothing more than both men exhausted, battered and roughly evenly matched:
      McKay: Tell me, Leech... what did we prove?
  • Attempted Rape: Of Julie by Buck Hannassey, until his father intervenes.
  • Bandit Clan: Inverted. The Hannassey clan in Blanco Canyon are treated as this by Major Terrill and his men, but it becomes increasingly clear that this is a pretext for throwing their weight around. The real source of tension is a range war between cattle families over access to the waters of the Big Muddy River. While more rustic, and despite the fact the the Hannassey boys are roughnecks (Buck in particular, who is both a Dirty Coward and a Jerkass), the Hannassey clan are never shown participating in criminal activity, beyond active participation in a range war, and are no worse than the Terrills.
  • Betty and Veronica: Julie (Betty) and Patricia (Veronica)
  • Bilingual Dialogue: When McCay and Ramon first meet, the former speaks English and Ramon speaks Spanish. After that first talk, Ramon mostly speaks in English.
  • 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.
  • 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 like McKay, who navigated ships across the Atlantic, and maybe the Pacific, to be told how Big the Country was.
  • Cassandra Truth: No one believes McKay when, after his ride across the country, he informs them that he was never lost and had been navigating his way across the country effectively. In Steve Leech's case it's clearly in large part because he's been spoiling for a fight with McKay for pretty much the entire movie and is by that point latching onto any lame excuse he can find to trigger one.
  • Cattle Baron: Both the Terrill and Hannassey families.
  • City Slicker: What everyone takes McKay for, with his "Eastern Style" hat, three-piece suit, and English riding boots.
  • Daddy's Girl: Patricia. Even her best friend Julie trying to reunite her with her now-ex fiancee has to admit that she'll be much more tolerable when away from her father's influence.
  • 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.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: McKay and Patricia do not end up together, however, he does end up with Julie.
  • Dirty Coward: Everyone thinks McKay is this when really he's just smart enough to not waste his time getting into unnecessary 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.
  • Duel to the Death: Mr. Hannassey sets one of these up between Buck and McKay.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While not necessarily evil, Mr. Hannassey is angry when Buck attempts to rape Julie and when he tries to steal another cowboy's gun to shoot McKay.
  • Exact Words: In McKay and Buck's shootoff, McKay is ordered to shoot when Buck shoots and misses prematurely. Seeing Buck cowering, McKay glumly complies, and shoots the ground just beside his feet.
  • Foil: Mr. Hannassey 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.
  • Forceful Kiss: Both the leading ladies run into this: Patricia from Steve, and Julie from Buck.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: At least part of Leech's poor attitude towards McKay is due to jealousy, as he's quite sweet on Patricia himself.
  • Grew a Spine: Steve Leech finally tells Terrill he won't continue with the underhanded and vicious things he's been doing.
  • The Gunslinger: Buck sure thinks he is.
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: What Buck actually is.
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: An in-universe example: Buck is familiar with revolvers, so after firing a single-shot dueling pistol, he cocks the hammer and pulls the trigger again. Naturally, nothing happens the second time.
  • 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).
  • Horsing Around: Leech tries to prank McKay by having him ride Old Thunder, without telling him that he's an unruly horse. McKay catches on and refuses, but later attempts to ride him when no one but Ramon is around. Old Thunder bucks him off repeatedly for a long time, but through sheer determination McKay eventually tames him.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: All three of the mains to their love interests, but Buck towering head and shoulders over Julie (as he threatens to shoot McKay) adds another layer of danger.
  • It Has Been an Honor: At the end of the movie, Leech won't do Terrill's dirty work any more—but he will ride with the man who raised him into the teeth of almost certain death...and Leech's men will ride with him as well.
  • Jerkass: 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.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: The emotional, "innocent" and ultimately somewhat impulsive Patricia versus the cool-headed and confident yet somewhat hard-edged Julie.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Rufus is visibly distraught over killing Buck.
  • 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.
  • The Patriarch: Hannassey as head of The Clan—and father of a rebellious, violent punk whose actions spark off part of the plot—more obviously than Terrill.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • McKay calls out Hannassey for being just as unreasonable, vicious, and bloodthirsty as Terrill—while pretending to have the moral high ground.
    • Hannassey has plenty of things to say to Terrill after Terrill's men attack his ranch and try to drive his cattle away from the Big Muddy.
  • 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.
  • Scenery Porn: Surprisingly downplayed. One would probably expect a movie called The Big Country would be a giant Western Epic Movie, and spend a lot of time showing off locations like Monument Valley or something, a la John Ford. Alas, the opening titles aside, it shows off the land no more or less than most Westerns; the title's more an ironic invocation of the movie's Arc Words than anything else. This said, it's still a classic Hollywood western, and there are some pretty damn nice shots of the country throughout.
  • Schoolmarm: Julie.
  • Second Love: While McKay starts the movie engaged to Patricia, it quickly becomes clear that her friend Julie is a much better match for him.
  • Showdown at High Noon: between Hannassey and Terrill, ending in a Mutual Kill—and ending the feud.
  • 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 doesn'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!
  • Ten Paces and Turn: The ship's captain played by Gregory Peck and one of the braggarts who frequently calls him a coward end up in one of these duels near the climax. Guess which one honours the terms of the deal and which one cravenly tries to shoot early. Hint: it's not the one played by Gregory Peck.
  • Title Drop: "It's a big country!". Becomes a lampshaded Overly Long Gag, to McKay's annoyance.
  • 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.
    • Ironically, the one person who has an accurate measure of McKay's true nature is Hannasey, who respects him far more than the Terrills.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Hannassey/Terrill feud is loosely based on the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud which caused a lot of trouble in Kentucky and West Virginia in the 1880s, only transplanted to the Old West.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Not that it surprises anyone, but Buck slaps Julie when she tries to stop him from shooting McKay. He also attempts to rape her.
  • 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, although the two might not exactly be what you'd call friends, Leech does come to respect McKay a bit more.