- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

The theme of water resources looms large during the 16th annual renewal of the Environmental Film Festival, which continues through March 22 at numerous participating museums, embassies and theaters in the Washington area.

Two famous Hollywood movies that long ago dramatized aspects of water hunger in the American Southwest are being revived to enhance the topic: William Wyler’s scenically and melodically splendid Western of 1958, “The Big Country,” Sunday at 3 p.m. at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, and the 1974 Roman Polanski-Robert Towne detective thriller, “Chinatown,” March 17 at 7 p.m. at the Library of Congress. (The latter showing is free; admission at the AFI Silver is $9.75 for the general public and $8.50 for members, students, seniors, children and military personnel.)

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen “The Big Country” when it was a first-run widescreen attraction may be tempted to take advantage of this one-shot revival, which anticipates the movie’s 50th-anniversary premiere by about seven months. A newly restored print was shown at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last fall, and it would be most desirable to see a fresh print on the largest screen at the AFI Silver, especially because Catherine Wyler, a longtime Washington resident and the daughter of the director, will introduce Sunday’s showing.

Mr. Wyler began his directing career at the age of 23, assigned to Westerns at Universal Pictures. In fact, his early credits between 1925 and 1927 consisted exclusively of two-reel or five-reel Westerns. He broke out of harness soon after talkies replaced silent films. By the time “Counsellor at Law” with John Barrymore was released in 1933, Mr. Wyler was becoming an expert at transposing contemporary plays to the screen. He returned to Westerns rarely but memorably — in 1940 with the Gary Cooper classic “The Westerner” and then in 1958 with “The Big Country,” which also revolves around a cagey, soft-spoken protagonist who upsets the power base of regional tyrants soon after arriving on their doorstep.

“The Big Country” always seemed an elegiac farewell to the original Wyler genre. Gregory Peck inherited the Cooper personality and temperament as a diffident, admirably passive-aggressive troublemaker named Jim McKay. A sea captain from Baltimore, evidently on leave from a prosperous family shipping business of his own, McKay arrives in what appears to be an awesomely vast and picturesque West Texas to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), the spoiled only daughter of a widowed cattle baron, Maj. Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). Before the movie begins, Patricia, a fickle heiress, seems to have been swept off her feet by the captain during an Eastern sojourn.

Curiously, Texas is never mentioned by name, although allusions systematically suggest it as the locale. The accomplished camera crew, supervised by Franz Planer, never got out of California — and certainly didn’t need to do so for optimum pictorial distinction. The exteriors for “The Big Country” were drawn from ranching country near Stockton and canyon country in the Mojave Desert.

At the time, Gregory Peck was a gentleman rancher and looked forward to organizing that side of the production. He and Mr. Wyler had been inseparable pals since “Roman Holiday,” but this reunion vehicle, which also turned them into co-producers and business partners, proved contentious enough to damage the friendship for a few years. Miss Wyler probably can clarify that temporary feud, which seems ironic as well as unfortunate. After all, the movie was contrived to commend Mr. Peck’s character as a well-intentioned feud-buster.

The fictional enmity pits the elder Terrill, a socially elevated despot, against Rufus Hannassey, an unapologetic ruffian who commands a ranching dynasty considered disreputable by local standards. Burl Ives won the Academy Award for best supporting actor playing the irresistibly volcanic and self-righteous Hannassey, whose rants acquired an incongruous musicality in the actor’s delivery. Although Mr. Ives also re-created his Broadway role as Big Daddy in the film version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1958, the Oscar tilt was justifiable: He had a more flattering and rewarding showcase in “The Big Country.”

Charlton Heston felt he was taking a status demotion as the second lead in “The Big Country.” He was, but it was a wise career move. Mr. Wyler cast him in “Ben-Hur” a year later. Mr. Heston also matches up plausibly as the once and future consort for Miss Baker’s father-fixated brat, obviously far less suitable for Mr. Peck than Jean Simmons. The latter couple appears destined to form a peacekeeping dynasty of their own; their offspring no doubt will intermarry with the Heston-Baker spawn in time for the “Giant” era. Mr. Heston has one great virtuoso take when donning his pants for a bemusing dawn punch-out with Mr. Peck. This emphatic gesture seems as impressive in its way as a quick draw.

The great finishing touch on the movie, of course, is Jerome Moross’ rich and inventive score, preserved in an even richer version in the recording conducted in 1988 by Tony Bremner for a 30th-anniversary CD on Silva Screen Records. Mr. Bremner also supplied the invaluable liner notes.

TITLE: “The Big Country”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1958, a decade before the advent of the film rating system; adult subject matter with occasional scenes of violence and elements of intense family conflict)

CREDITS: Directed by William Wyler. Produced by Mr. Wyler and Gregory Peck. Screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett and Robert Wilder, based on a novel by Donald Hamilton. Cinematography by Franz F. Planer. Music by Jerome Moross. Art direction by Frank Hotaling. Editing by Robert Swink. Title sequence designed by Saul Bass.

RUNNING TIME:165 minutes

DVD EDITION: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/dvd

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