Big Country, The (1958): William Wyler’s Sprawling Western Starring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, and Burl Ives in Oscar Winning Role

The sprawling saga The Big Country is one of the few Westerns that the versatile and prolific Oscar-winning director William Wyler has made.

Gregory Peck (who also produced) plays James McKay, a seafaring man heading West to marry Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), the daughter of rancher Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford).

The Big Country
Big country833.jpg

Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass

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 so to the outside 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 it calls for bloody violence.  Ideologically, the films bears the same message as another liberal Western, the 1952 “High Noon,” by Fred Zinnemann.  In both pictures, the (reluctant) hero engages in violent 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 a 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 actors 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



Directed by William Wyler
Written by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder, based on Ambush at Blanco Canyon, 1958 novel, 1957 The Saturday Evening Post by Donald Hamilton
Produced by Gregory Peck, William Wyler
Cinematography Franz F. Planer, ASC
Edited by Robert Belcher, John Faure
Music by Jerome Moross
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: August 13, 1958 (Atlantic City)

Running time: 166 minutes
Box office $3.5 million (US and Canada rentals)