The Big Country lives up to its title. The camera has captured a vast section of the southwest with such fidelity that the long stretches of dry country, in juxtaposition to tiny western settlements, and the giant canyon country in the arid area, have been recorded with almost three-dimensional effect.
Although the story – based on Donald Hamilton’s novel, with Jessamyn West and Robert Wyler credited with the screen adaptation – is dwarfed by the scenic outpourings, The Big Country is nonetheless armed with a serviceable, adult western yarn.
Basically it concerns the feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), rugged individualists who covet the same watering area for their cattle. The water spot is open to both camps since it is the property of Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who has been willed the property by her grandfather.
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Bickford is the ‘have’ rancher of the area, with a fine home, a large head of cattle, a beautiful daughter (Carroll Baker), and a full crew of ranch hands. Ives is the ‘have not’, with a brood of unruly and uncouth sons, a bunch of shacks, and an army of ‘white trash’ relatives. Into the atmosphere of hate and vengeance comes Gregory Peck, a genteel eastern dude, to marry Baker. Peck arouses Baker’s displeasure when he refuses to ride a wild horse and backs away from a fight with Charlton Heston, Bickford’s truculent foreman who’s after Baker himself.
As the peace-loving easterner, Peck gives one of his better performances. Ives is topnotch as the rough but fair-minded Hannassey; Bickford is fine as the ruthless, unforgiving rancher. Chuck Connors, a former professional baseball player, is especially convincing as Ives’ uncouth son who attempts to rape Simmons. Jerome Moross’ musical score is also on the plus side.
1958: Best Supp. Actor (Burl Ives).
Nomination: Best Score of a Dramatic Picture