COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

06/24/2020

The Film Foundation has facilitated the restorations of five films by William Wyler, including one of his greatest (and one of the greatest, by anyone anywhere), Dodsworth. I wanted to focus on The Big Country because I’ve always found it underrated and because the circumstances of its creation provide a vivid snapshot of big-budget American moviemaking in the late 50s, as well as an equally vivid contrast with the world of cinema as it is now. Wyler had just directed live television for the first and last time, and he and his friend/star/co-producer Gregory Peck were eager to create a big screen movie epic. They shot in Technirama, a sort of anamorphic version of VistaVision. They developed a story about a liberal, educated easterner landing in the world of rival ranching families in a state of perpetual war—a meditation on manhood and the stark contrast between reason and inner fortitude on the one hand and blood-fueled and grievance-driven action and reaction on the other. Wyler and Peck chose locations that allowed them to shoot on an immense scale. As it sometimes happened in Hollywood, they went into production without a finished script, which meant a swelling budget and mounting tensions of all shapes and sizes on the set. Jean Simmons remembered learning her lines, then being given all new pages that she had to stay up all night memorizing, then arriving on location the next morning to find that the scene had been re-written once again. Carroll Baker’s Actor’s Studio training was sometimes at odds with Wyler’s method of directing. Peck insisted on retakes that Wyler refused to execute and they stopped speaking. In the end, Wyler left for Rome to make Ben-Hur and turned over all of post-production and even the shooting of a new ending to his editor Robert Swink. When the film was released it did moderately well, but it was thought of as something of a letdown. Looking at the Academy restoration today, within the context of this moment, when the difference between cinema and episodic television and all kinds of other audiovisual stuff has to be clarified and proudly proclaimed once more, and when blind passions and willful ignorance of scientific fact have put the country in real danger, The Big Country seems movingly grand and eloquent, kind of imperfect but generous, ample, and grounded in a belief in the very best in us.

- Kent Jones

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