Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Big Country (1958)

This is another of those movies I own on DVD because it came in a pack with the movies I actually wanted.  I've had pretty good luck with such films in the past, but it did not really continue here.

It's not that The Big Country is a bad film, per se.  The music and cinematography are good and the performances are all sound.  But it is in my opinion a deeply and fundamentally flawed film in a couple of important ways.

The first of these ways is the length.  At 160 minutes, the movie is far too long for the relatively slight story it has to tell.  I appreciate that it's a film that deliberately sets out to be an 'epic', but I haven't seen a narrative this padded since ... well, okay, since the Hobbit films, which wasn't that long ago.  But Peter Jackson's efforts to redefine self-indulgence aside, this is one of the most "oh get on with it" movies I've seen in a while.

The second issue is the main character.  Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is Right About Everything, All The Time.  Now sure protagonists often do tend to be The Best, but in McKay's case it becomes problematic because his actions do not match the motivations the script ascribes to him.  If you tell me that one of the prime traits of your protagonist is modesty, it's best if I can't point to at least three scenes in your film where his actions appear motivated by pride.

The plot: man from back east (McKay/Peck) arrives in the west to marry his fiancee.  He makes a poor first impression on most of the locals: but as the movie will make abundantly clear to us, over and over again, this is because the locals are all venal, spiteful western yokels and he is ethically, morally and intellectually their superior.  No doubt this played very well to urban, middle class 1950s cinema-goers.  Anyway, his fiancee's family is locked in a bitter feud with one of the other ranchers in the county, and things all come to a head soon after he arrives.  What a good thing the city slicker is there now to fix all the problems these brutish cowboys have brought upon themselves.

The Big Country is one of those late-50s-to-early-60s westerns (like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) that critiques and/or deconstructs the genre that birthed it.  Alas, it does so without any verve or consistency, and it takes way too long to do it.

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