Just over a year ago I reviewed The Big Country (1958) writing it in response to having just read Five Came Back by Mark Harris which focused on five directors including William Wyler who documented the WWII from the skies, most memorably – The Memphis Belle (1944). The book has just been turned into a 3-part documentary series now. I left my review wanting to watch his first film coming back home to Hollywood, wanting to consider those veterans who were all starting to come home, not all in the same shape that families last saw them go off in. These were the lucky ones, countless men were lost in action and the line of duty but not in vain. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was Wyler’s tribute to these men, America’s veterans from the world’s most deadly brutal conflict. It was also a massive eye-opener to the public that their veterans were coming home, whilst some were adapting well to civilian life there were of course many who weren’t.
There aren’t many films from the 1940s that run to almost 3 hours in length, yet those don’t have such an important heart-felt message to deliver. It has to run at a leisurely pace to feel like real life, no stylish editing to take away from the documentary style aesthetic that combined actors and amateurs who really brought home what civilian life meant for these veterans. We follow three ex-servicemen who are trying to get home. Taking one from the three main arms of the forces – Navy, Army and the Air force we see three very different men return home. The first hour is full of emotion as we follow them first meeting to the taxi they share. Each optimistic and uncertain of what lays beyond that door to their past lives.
First we meet Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) as he wants to get a flight home, none are going his way for now. Whilst civilians find it so easy, as one passenger literally is just handed his pre-booked tickets. He has to return to his own kind to get a trip home, in a bomber that no longer carries bombs, just passengers where he meets the other two veterans – Al Stephenson (Fredric March) a sergeant who fought the ground war and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) a navy officer who has lost his arms to below the elbow, leaving him with hooks, a lasting reminder of the warm and its personal cost to him. Having him on-screen is as reminder of the real sacrifices, Russell a non-professional actor who can really bring home what went on at sea, on the land and in the skies of war. He came close to paying the ultimate cost. It’s a shock to see him, yet we quickly accept him and his situation. He can cope with them why can’t we. I was amazed how he could operate these complex hooks which allow him to function. There’s an underlying fear – will he be accepted by his family and ultimately his fiance Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) who he has to reconnect with.
At this point we don’t know how the war has really affected the other two who have come back pretty much intact – on the surface anyway. It’s when as I keep mentioning they get home do we start to understand what they are coming back to. For Al the banker he’s has changed emotionally, more assertive and sure of himself. His family isn’t yet ready to receive this man back into their lives. Taking his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) on a bender. They clearly haven’t seen this side of their father and husband who has really come of what was a very conservative life of a comfortable job in a bank that assured his families future.
Whilst Fred takes a bit longer to work out. After learning his wife (of only 20 days when he last saw her) had moved out and becoming a club singer. Not the life he was expecting to come back to. He represents all those men who fell in love and got married before their leave was up. Understandably so, no one knew if they would return and wanted to make the most of what time they had. He’s one of the average Joe’s (yes Dana Andrews) who we see again at Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael) drugstore where we also find Al and Homer who have formed a bond that would never have happened at war, three division of the armed forces have come together. Alcohol fueled and very emotional. It’s at Butch’s that they are all able to open up, start to see their futures.
You could see this as just another standard film of the era, yet there’s something very different in the characterisations, we have more realism, sure they are all well acted, with a nod in Harold Russell, one of the few men in the film who saw action validating what this film is about. He has nothing to lose from his role. You could say the film relies on him which would be unfair, the trained actors/actresses.
Turning away from Homer we have Fred who gives us the first glimpse at what P.T.S.D. really is, of course it’s only fleeting, a nightmare of his time on a bombing mission. Not able to properly process what has happened, to grieve for those he has lost and the scenes he has seen whilst at war. He has it probably just as hard as Homer adapting to civilian life, having to find a job, not wanting to return to his past to support him. A wife whose not the person he married, the woman he knew was in the photo he held onto for 3 years, not the woman who wants the uniform, the image of his past. Both are looking for something in each other that no longer or never really existed, an ideal version. Whilst Homer is unsure that he will be accepted by his family and fiance, not the man they saw leave to fight. It’s one that so many others returning home were facing at the time.
The film drives home what had changed at home in America, that it hadn’t stood still. It’s not like going on a holiday only to see the house is still standing and everyone around you is still there. There was a financial boom during the period, massive change at home, a word I am not afraid to repeat over and over now. Home is what the film is all about, what it means to so many when away for so long. The expectations of the veterans, the civilians who welcome them back and adapt to these changed men to a life they had all but forgotten. No longer giving or carrying out orders, running for or fighting the enemy, all that is over. Going back to where they had always wanted to be. Society at the time was going through a state of mass readjustment, making room and accepting these men back into daily life, a whole other battle. The Best Years of Our Lives went a long way to making it easier for veterans to be accepted back home after they had longed for it ever-since they left.
Lastly I want to find a connection between this film and The Big Country which saw a man out-of-place, adapting to an alien world that spoke his own language yet he had to prove himself to those around him. A war of his own you could say. It’s nothing like Years of Our Lives which was a much-needed film for its time. Much as Wyler’s last film before leaving for war himself Mrs. Miniver (1942) encouraged his own country to get behind the war in Europe. Two films that captured the spirit of the war. Looking at the Western it’s so far away from this time it’s something else entirely, a look back at the war, maybe another look is needed, I know I’ll be taking in Mrs. Miniver soon.
For Christmas 2014 I received a book that I’ve only just finished (I’m a slow reader) Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, the focus of the book on the journeys and events surrounding five directors who gave up their careers to document the war. Namely John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Who all did their bit for their country, driving the message home that there was a war going on. Men were away from home fighting for freedom. I was making connections between the directors experience and later works, especially that of William Wyler who came away practically deafened in the name of filming the conflict for audiences back home and in uniform. His last completed documentary being Thunderbolt (1947) released after the war to the public. Only able to hear via a hearing aid and only just His adjustment back to civilian life was hard, needing to find subjects that reflected his experiences. His last civilian effort – Mrs Miniver (1942) may have been a winner at the awards yet for him it lacked the reality of real warfare. I personally left that film, uplifted, experience a classic war film on the home-front, even though made across in Hollywood. Maybe it was the actors who made it, maybe it was the on-screen comradely. The general public doesn’t go in looking for accuracy, they go for escapism and that’s what Mrs Miniver was and still is.
His first film back in civilian life The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) sees a grounding in his working, looking at those soldiers who have to return to the lives they left behind. As if they are stuck in a moment in time, whilst the rest of the world carries on. I want to seek out this film to understand it more. However what I want to talk about is a film that I haven’t seen in some time – The Big Country (1958) from a director who made very few westerns in his career. This one stands out in the genre, it has a universal quality to it. The sweeping iconic score from Jerome Moross who is much forgotten himself over the vast landscape where this bold Western plays out.
So where does the rawness come into The Big Country? that’s what I wanted to know, where are his experience of life on the screen. I have to look at this film from the point of view of the director not so much the characters which act more like vessels for himself. Each different aspects of his life. The open country that is so breathtaking for us to eat up is a reflection of the land of opportunity that Wyler came too in the early 1930’s when he escaped Nazi Germany before it could have killed him. Entering into the middle of cattle country, the big-business of the 19th century, of course a mirror of 2oth centuries being film. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is the outsider who has live a life in the refined East, and on-board sailing ships, a gentlemen entering a world that is alien to him, and where the meaning of being a man is very different, bringing with him some 20th century ideas as we find out. Coming out West to marry the woman Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) he met whilst she was out in his world. He is making a massive sacrifice to literally leave his world behind him for the rugged outdoors.
His manhood’s tested not long after his arrival in the form of the Hannassey brothers, the rival cattle family. They are a what McKay is not, rough with a gun at their side, not so bothered about their appearance, these are cowboys the man of the West who knows how to handle himself, nothing scares them, at least on the surface. The test is a failure of sorts, not fighting back in front of Patricia whose gun is lost and forced to bring her carriage to a halt to be harassed. She is starting to really see the man she is about to marry. Not a complete mirror image of Wyler’s first few years, having to adapt to a different way of working. The films he was given to direct. Yet come to be-known for his multiple takes, pushing even the hardest of actors which included Bette Davis.
Of course it’s only when we meet the older men of the cast, the heads of the Terrills – Maj. Henry (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) who is the complete opposite. Both powerful men in their own ways, men to be feared if crossed. For me if you take away Peck from the film you still have Ives who stole the show, chewing the scenery, owning the landscape as if he was born there. These two men could mirror the studio moguls who kept their stars in check, decided their future and could easily make enemies. Also most of them European and Jewish which is the major. The chosen enemy of the Nazi’s and resented by Americans for their success and power in their own country, making and living the American dream, dictating what audience would ultimately watch and listen to. Of course in a Western everyone is mostly American, even the rival families who are fighting for drinking rights. When you listen to Maj. Henry you can feel the hate that he feels for the Hannasssey’s who live in the mountains, not the fields of rich grass. Who should we as an audience side with? Personally I was drawn to the Hannessey’s more so Rufus who speaks more from the heart, the down-trodden man who wont stay down. I think what got me was the first time we meet him, as he interrupts a party shaming the Maj. into getting him to pick up a gun to kill him. The Maj. doesn’t take the bait, the better man, or out of gentlemanly modesty he refuses.
Of course what stands in both the families ways is the Big Muddy, land owned by school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who holds the real power between them. Wanting to be the meadiator, wanting peace. She is the ideal even though her land is not covered with cattle, the house is in a state of dis-repair. Best friend also of Patricia who is like one of the short-sighted, her fathers daughter in short that wont easily have her mind changed. It had been so long that I forgot the romantic outcome of the film. We’re not supposed like her much, compared to the more feminine Maragon who has more Eastern qualities which 20th century America can associate with. As much as Patricia is saying what a man should be, whilst Julie is more accepting of the man in the form he comes.
This has become more of an essay (of sorts) than a review, I want to quickly look at Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) the adoptive son of the Terrill’s who has become the man that is the ideal, the one that even Wyler may have wanted to be, but only ever be Mckay in reality which is all I could ever be out in that world. They do meet head on in a sequence that I mis-took for suspense as they both show their real strengths to each other, a long fistful goodbye, that last a good five minutes, far longer than most on-screen fights which at that length today would fall into parody. They develop a mutual respect for each other. That’s after the knowledge that we have that McKay has proved himself to be a man of the West in certain ways, adapting his knowledge from the East to the West, even if he can’t prove that to those who matter, he has to keep those success’s quite until its too late.
The finale is a long drawn out battle of two warring families finally meeting in Blanco Canyon, the rugged dangerous mountains where so many other Westerns have taken place, usually home to the Native Americans who can hide out and wait for the white man to enter into their world. Here its the home of the Hannassey’s who are the underdogs, even seen as white Native American of the film, but more acceptable because they are white. Its become warfare between two men who have to prove themselves. Not before a few tests of strength between Mckay and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), where we see love losing out to honor at times. Its as dramatic as the film gets before we get down to business.
It’s a long film even for a Western but it does hold your attention for the length of 2hours and 39 minutes, nothing is wasted with time for action, romance, violence, war and hatred. That’s a to pack in to even the standard length film, it spills out on the vast canvas. When you read it in the light of the directors eyes you see something far different than just a Western, something that speaks from an lone outsider who had long been accepted by both his peers and the country he lived in. You could say he lived the American dream, thing very idea that The Big Country is all about.