Big Country, The (1958): William Wyler Sprawling Western Starring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons

In the sprawling saga The Big Country, one of the few Westerns that the versatile and prolific Oscar-winning director William Wyler has made, Gregory Peck plays James McKay, a seafaring man heading West to marry Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), the daughter of rancher Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford).

Terrill is embroiled in a water-rights feud with the imperious patriarch Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, grand acting), and so both he and his daughter hope that McKay would take care of himself.

However, McKay doesn’t belief in violence, and to the ouside world, he appears to be a coward, especially when challenged by Terrill’s cocksure foreman Steve Leech (macho Charlton Heston).

McKay decides to distance himself from the feuds, settling for a romance with a quiet but headstrong schoolmarm named Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). It “just happens” that Julie’s water-rich lands are being fought over by the two warring ranchers.

When Julie is kidnapped, it’s time for McKay to take action, even if t calls for bloody violence.  Ideologically, the films bears the same message as another liberal Western, “High Noon,” by Fred Zinnemann.  In both pictures, the (reluctant) hero engages in violents acts as a last resort.

Produced by star Gregory Peck, then at the height of his fame, “The Big Country” is too slow, too long, and too sprawling to qualify as truly engaging Western.  The drama comes to life sporadically, when it’s punctuated by fistifights (one between Peck and Heston) and other action scenes.

But the cast is pleasant, and most of the acors do a decent job.

Burl Ives won the Supporting Actor Oscar for this picture, but the feeling in the industry was that he was also compensated for playing impressivley two other patriarchs: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Teen Roof” and in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Burl Ives

Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Jerome Moross


Oscar Awards:  1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Oscar Scoring was vet composer Dimitri Tiomkin for Fred Zinnemann’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”



Gregory Peck as James McKay

Jean Simmons as Julie Maragon

Carroll Baker as Pat Terrill

Charlton Heston as Steve Leech

Burl Ives as Rufus Hannassey

Charles Bickford as Major Henry Terrill



Written By: Robert Wilder, James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wyler.

Wide release: January 1, 1958.

DVD: March 20, 2001