Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"THE BIG COUNTRY" (1958) Review



"THE BIG COUNTRY" (1958) Review

William Wyler and Gregory Peck first worked together in the 1953 comedy classic, "ROMAN HOLIDAY". The director and the actor became close friends and spent a few years trying to find the right property for which they could co-produce and work on together. Peck finally came across a magazine story, which eventually transformed to the movie screen as 1958's "THE BIG COUNTRY"

The magazine story in question happened to be the 1957 Saturday Evening Post serialized article called "Ambush at Blanco Canyon". Written by future Matt Helm author, Donald Hamilton; the story was basically about a Baltimore sea captain, who travels to Texas to claim his bride, the daughter of a wealthy rancher; and finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between his future father-in-law and less wealthy rancher.

"THE BIG COUNTRY" began with the arrival of sea captain Jim McKay to a small, dusty town in western Texas to join his fiancée Patricia Terrill at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Henry Terrill. Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey, the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. Patricia's friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon, owns the "Big Muddy", a large ranch with a vital water supply. Although she cannot afford to hire men to operate her ranch, Julie is caught in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud, as she has been allowing both Terrill and Hannassey to use her water for their cattle, while both ranchers long to buy her land in order to put the other man out of business. 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 during his and Patricia's ride to the Terrill ranch; and he declines a challenge by Terrill's foreman, Steve Leech, to ride an unruly horse. When McKay decides to purchase Julie's ranch and maintain her promise to provide water for the two rivals, matters eventually escalate into romantic problems and more violence between Terrill and Hannassey.

During his first three years as a director, William Wyler worked only on Westerns. Then between 1929 and 1940, he directed two Westerns - "HELL'S HEROES" (1930) and "THE WESTERNER" (1940). Wyler waited another seventeen-to-eighteen years before he worked on his final Western, 1958's "THE BIG COUNTRY". Although many movie fans seemed to like "THE BIG COUNTRY", very few seemed to regard it as one of his finest films. I cannot decide whether or not I would view it as one of his best films. But if I must be honest, I do consider it as one of my favorite Wyler movies . . . even if my opinion of it has declined slightly over the years.

My recent viewing of "THE BIG COUNTRY" made me realize that it might be at least 40 minutes too long. A tight story about an Easterner getting caught in the middle of a land feud did not seem epic enough for a movie with a running time of 165 minutes. After he had finished production on the film, Wyler rushed into pre-production for his next film, "BEN-HUR". Co-producer and star Gregory Peck had feuded with him over a scene that he felt needed some serious editing. tried to convince him to finish "THE BIG COUNTRY" with some much needed editing - a feud that lasted two years. And their feud was not helped by Wyler's preoccupation with "BEN-HUR". In the end, I believe that Peck had a right to be concerned. I feel that the movie needed a good deal of editing. Wyler wasted a good deal of film on Buck Hannassey and his two brothers' hazing of Jim McKay during the latter and Patricia Terrill's ride to her father's ranch. The movie also wasted film on McKay's self-challenge to ride the very horse that Steve Leech had earlier dared him to ride - Old Thunder. That scene took too damn long. Wyler also seemed enraptured over the eastern California and western Arizona landscape that served as Texas in the movie. Perhaps he became too enraptured. In the end, it seemed as if Wyler's interest in Western culture and landscape had almost spiraled out of control. Even worse, "THE BIG COUNTRY" almost became a series of far shots to indicate the size of the movie and its setting.

Despite its flaws, "THE BIG COUNTRY" still remains a big favorite of mine. Robert Wilder, along with Jessamyn West, James R. Webb and Sy Bartlett did a first-rate job in adapting Hamilton's story. Their efforts, along with Wyler's direction, produced what I believe turned out to be one of the most unique Westerns I have ever seen. What I enjoyed about "THE BIG COUNTRY" was that it took the public's image of what a Western - whether made in Hollywood or published in novels and magazines - and turned it on its head. Rarely one would find a Western in which its hero is a mild-mannered personality with the guts to reject the prevailing ideal of a Western man. The 1939 movie "DESTRY RIDES AGAIN" came close to it, but its quiet hero was an expert gunman, despite his "pacifist" ways. Even the Jim McKay eventually gives in to his own aggression, due to his developing feelings toward his fiancee's best friend, Julie Maragon. But he also ends up learning a good deal about himself, thanks to Rufus Hannassey. I found it interesting that movie made a big deal over an eventual conflict between Terrill and Hannassey's two "lieutenants" - Terrill's foreman Steve Leech and Hannassey's oldest son Buck. And yet, both ended up clashing with McKay over two women - Pat Terrill and Julie. And their clashes with Jim ended with ironic twists one rarely or never finds in many other Westerns.

"THE BIG COUNTRY" featured an excellent cast led by the always remarkable Gregory Peck. I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate portrayal of a character many might find uninteresting. I think that Peck's Jim McKay would not have been that interesting in a modern-day tale. But as a character that upset the notions of manhood in the West . . . he was perfect for this story. As I had stated earlier, even McKay could not contain his emotions any longer. And Peck did a fine job in slowly revealing his character's contained emotions - whether it was his dislike of Steve Leech, who constantly taunted him out of jealousy toward his engagement to Patricia; his frustrated anger at both Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey's unwillingness to end their destructive feud; or his anger at Buck Hannassey, whom he viewed as a threat to a woman he eventually grew to love, namely Julie. Not surprisingly, Peck did an excellent job in holding this movie together.

But there were other performances that also caught my eye. The always dependable Jean Simmons gave a charming and solid performance as schoolmarm Julie Maragon. Charles Bickford, who had first worked with Wyler in "HELL'S HEROES", did a fine job in revealing Henry Terrill's malice and ego behind a dignified facade. "THE BIG COUNTRY" proved to be the last movie for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya (known for a famous line from the 1948 movie, "THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE". What I enjoyed about Bedoya's portrayal of Terrill ranch hand Ramón Guiteras was his ability to reveal his character's wisdom behind the cliché of the childlike immigrant. I would go even further to state that Bedoya's Ramón proved to be the wisest character in the story.

Chuck Connors is finally receiving some recognition of his performance as the blowhard Buck Hannassey and I say that it is about time. Most people tend to dismiss his character as a one-note bully . . . a typical cliché of what one might find in a Western. But thanks to Wyler's direction and Connors' acting skills, the latter also revealed the pathetic boy who had more or less longed for the love and respect from a parent who never liked him and who may have bullied him. Charlton Heston's Steve Leech also proved to be a surprise. His character also started out as another cliché - the solid and virile Western cowboy. Thanks to Heston's skillful performance, he developed Steve into a mature man who began to question the West's code regarding manhood and who realized that the man he admired - Henry Terrill - may not have been as admirable as he had perceived for so long. One of Heston's best moments on the screen was his quiet and determined effort to stop Terrill from the leading their cowboys into an ambush set up Hannassey in Blanco Canyon. 

I was surprised to realize that the Patricia Terrill character, portrayed by Carroll Baker, struck me as more of a contrast to Buck Hannassey than Steve Leech. Whereas Buck longs for his father's respect and admiration, Patricia has her father's love in spades. Perhaps too much of it. Buck has spent most of his life being bullied by Hannassey. Patricia has spent most of her life being spoiled. Buck reacts with violence or bullying tactics when he does not get his way. Patricia resorts to temper tantrums. And she turns out to be just as childish and pathetic. I was shocked to learn that Baker now possesses a reputation for being a sex symbol. It seemed the public has tacked this reputation on her, based upon a handful of movies she appeared in the 1960s. I find this criminal, for it is plain to me that she was a very talented actress, who did a superb job in capturing the spoiled and childish nature of Pat Terrill. I feel she gave one of the best performances in the movie. But the one cast member who walked away with an award for his performance was singer-actor Burl Ives, who portrayed Henry Terrill's rival, the seemingly brutish and sharp-tongued Rufus Hannassey. I might as well say it . . . he deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Some have claimed that he actually won for his performance in another movie, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF". Others have claimed that he won for his performances in both movies. I have never seen "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF". But I cannot deny that he was SUPERB in "THE BIG COUNTRY". Ives had all of the best lines and he did wonders with it . . . especially in his scenes with Chuck Connors. His Hannassey seemed to be, without a doubt, not only the most interesting character in the movie, but also I feel that Ives gave the best performance. 

Even though I found some of the movie's photography excessive and its editing almost non-existent, I still found myself enraptured over cinematographer Franz Planer's work. He really allowed the eastern California and western Arizona locations to live up to the movie's title. Without Wyler's post-production input, Robert Belcher and John Faure's editing pretty much came up short. However, there was one scene in which their work, along with Wyler's direction and Planner's camera, made it one of the most memorable in the movie. I am sure that very few have forgotten that moment in which a silently exasperated Leech changed his mind about following Terrill into Blanco Canyon. This entire sequence was enhanced by the stirring score written by Jerome Moross. Speaking of the composer, Moross received a much deserved Oscar nomination for the movie's score. Personally, I would have preferred it he had actually won. In my opinion, his score for "THE BIG COUNTRY" is one of the best ever in Hollywood history.

Is "THE BIG COUNTRY" one of the best movies ever directed by the legendary William Wyler? I really cannot say. I have seen better movies directed by him. The movie has some series flaws, especially in regard to editing and too many far shots. But thanks to an unusual story, an excellent cast led by Gregory Peck, a superb score by Jerome Moross and some not-too-shabby direction by Wyler, "THE BIG COUNTRY" remains one of my favorite Westerns of all time.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Moral Compass and the STAR WARS Fandom




MORAL COMPASS AND STAR WARS FANDOM

The more posts and articles that I read about the STAR WARS saga, the more I begin to wonder if a great deal of the franchise’s fandom would have preferred if Lucas had allowed the saga to maintain the black-and-white morality of "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE"

All of the STAR WARS films have their flaws. And although "A NEW HOPE" had its moments of moral ambiguity in the character of smuggler Han Solo, the moral compass presented in the 1977 film seemed more black-and-white than ambiguous. I can even recall one guy complaining on his blog that "A NEW HOPE" was the only film in the franchise that he liked, because the other films that followed had too much ambiguity. I also noticed that when discussing "STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK", many fans tend to ignore or make excuses for the questionable actions of the major characters in that film. 

Fans made excuses for Chewbacca’s assault upon Lando Calrissian in the 1980 film, because the latter had sold them out to Darth Vader and the Empire in order to prevent the deaths of the Bespin colony's citizens. They also made excuses for Princess Leia Organa’s support of Chewbacca’s assault. Yet, very few fans and critics have seemed willing to criticize Chewbacca and Leia’s actions . . . or the fact that neither of them ever considered the possibility that their arrival at Bespin had endangered Lando and the citizens. And when I had once questioned why Han never noticed bounty hunter Boba Fett shadowing the Millennium Falcon during its long journey from the Hoth system to Bespin (without an operating hyperdrive), many either dismissed my question or refused to even ponder on that situation. I had also discussed Luke Skywalker’s willingness stop his rage-fueled assault upon his father, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in "STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI", many saw this as an example of Luke’s moral superiority. No one ever pondered on the possibility that Emperor Palpatine’s verbal interruption may have stopped Luke from killing his father. 

When it comes to the moral ambiguity of the characters in the Prequel Trilogy movies, a lot of fans tend to scream "bad writing", instead of exploring the possibility that even the good guys are capable of bad or criminal actions. They reacted at least three ways in regard to the actions of the Jedi characters. One, they tend to accuse Lucas of bad writing when major Jedi characters like Yoda, Mace Windu or Obi-Wan Kenobi made bad decisions. Or they would make excuses for their questionable actions – especially Yoda and Obi-Wan. Or . . . the only Jedi characters they are willing to criticize are Mace Windu for his attempt to kill Palpatine in "STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE JEDI" and Qui-Gon Jinn for insisting that Anakin Skywalker be trained as Jedi in "STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE". Yet, hardly anyone seems willing to question Yoda for his own attempt to deliberately kill Palpatine or Obi-Wan’s willingness to leave a seriously wounded Anakin to slowly burn to death on one of Mustafar’s lava banks in the 2005 movie. Why? Is it because both Yoda and Obi-Wan are considered heroic favorites from the Original Trilogy? Who knows? 

Speaking of Anakin, many fans seemed to be upset that Lucas had not portrayed him as some adolescent or twenty-something "bad boy". Many fans have also expressed displeasure that the Prequel Trilogy had began with Anakin at the age of nine. Why, I do not know. Either this has something to do with the "cool factor", or they cannot deal with the idea that a mega villain like Darth Vader began his life as an innocent and rather nice boy. Most of all, many fans and critics seem incapable of dealing with Anakin giving in to evil for the sake of his love for Naboo senator Padme Amidala . . . despite the fact that Original Trilogy characters like Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Chewbacca have either done or nearly done the same.

Once the Disney Studios had acquired LucasFilm from George Lucas, they seemed bent upon returning to the black-and-white moral compass of "A NEW HOPE" with their 2015 film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS". The Finn character seems to be another version of Han Solo - starting out as an ambiguous character and emerging as a heroic figure. Aside from one moment near the end of the film, Kylo Ren seemed more like a one-dimensional villain. Perhaps director-writer Rian Johnson will allow the character to break out of this shell in the upcoming "STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII - THE LAST JEDI". As for the 2016 stand-alone film, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY", many critics and fans had complimented the film for its exploration of the main characters’ ambiguity. Yet, the Jyn Erso character is already being unfavorably compared by the media to the more ideal Rey character from "THE FORCE AWAKENS". And by the last half hour of "ROGUE ONE", the main characters had ditched their ambiguity and embraced being heroes. Not even the current LucasFilm production company, Disney and director Gareth Edwards would allow the main characters to remain ambiguous.

Lucas had started the STAR WARS saga with an entertaining and well done tale with very little ambiguity in 1977 and developed it into a complex and ambiguous saga that I believe did a great job in reflecting the true ambiguous nature of humanity. And yet, it seems that a lot of people remain angry at him for daring to explore our ambiguity in the first place. Some have claimed that STAR WARS is the wrong movie franchise to explore moral ambiguity. Personally, I do not see why not.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"LOVE & FRIENDSHIP" (2016) Photo Gallery



Below are images from "LOVE & FRIENDSHIP", the 2016 adaptation of Jane Austen's 1794 novel, "Lady Susan". Directed by Whit Stillman, the movie starred Kate Beckinsale: 


"LOVE & FRIENDSHIP" (2016) Photo Gallery