Saturday, March 15, 2014

In This Big Country, All The Dreams Involved Killin'

When I was a young and foolish child, I watched Ren & Stimpy. Wasn't my favorite Nicktoon, or even close (Rocko's Modern Life forever!), but I watched it. So I was and still am familiar with the "Happy Happy Joy Joy" song, which including the strange line 'I'll teach you to be happy. I'll teach your grandmother to suck eggs!'

Imagine my surprise to learn that came from a bit of dialogue in The Big Country. Not that the saying originated there, but the actual spoken version used in the song is Burl Ives saying it in this 1950s Western. The actual movie, which I hadn't seen prior to last night, was about a New England shipping line owner - Jim McKay, played by Gregory Peck - coming to a vast cattle ranch out west. It's the home of his fiance Patsy Terrill (Carroll Baker), run by her father, the Major (Charles Bickford) and his constantly sullen foreman (Charlton Heston). The Terrills have a longstanding feud with a much smaller, less prosperous ranching family, the Hannasseys, primarily their patriarch Rufus (Ives), and his dirty, incompetent, thieving, bullying son Buck (Chuck Conners). Currently in the middle is local schoolteacher Julie (Jean Simmons), who owns a piece of land with a vital water source for cattle on it. She lets both families use it, but both constantly pressure her to sell to them, so they can exclude the other. And Buck is rather sweet on her (the feeling is not mutual).

Into this walks McKay, a man who simply doesn't understand it. The macho posturing, the constant attempts to affirm one's manliness by picking on others, the escalation of hostilities in response to the slightest perceived disrespect which everyone treats as normal. Or he understands it, but refuses to go along. He takes Buck's bullying calmly and with good humor, tries to keep problems from escalating, tries to be the peacemaker, all while quietly learning what it takes to be a rancher out west. But most of the people - including, sadly, Patsy - don't see it happening, and so they perceive him as a coward and a fool.

Jim's a very cool character, precisely because he sticks so solidly to his principles. He's a fairly quiet, but otherwise friendly man, who refuses to let others' opinions of him dictate how he acts. When Jim does appear to give in to the macho displays, it quickly becomes apparent that isn't the case. Eventually he challenges Heston to a fistfight, just the two of them, at night. He actually impresses Heston, but he's really trying to make a point, to try and get the other man to adopt a different approach, or at least to realize the flaws in the Major's way of doing things.

All the main actors give good performances, though Baker gets stuck with a pretty unlikeable character, the Unsupportive Spouse. Conners plays a serious villain, Ives and Bickford are a couple of vengeful old men more than willing to throw a bunch of men's lives away on a stupid argument, but Patsy is the character that allegedly loves Jim, is so happy to see him, and then turns against him practically the first time he doesn't behave precisely as she thinks he should. Which is to say, precisely as the Major would have. So she comes off very shallow and generally unpleasant, after first appearing to be a likely nice character. I mean my first thought was she would be feisty and ready to fight, but not so hostile to Jim's reluctance to do so.

I particularly liked Ives' character. He's very rough-and-tumble, has an excess of pride, but doesn't lack for bravery or honesty, and he's pretty quick on the uptake. Also, he has some strong beliefs about how gentlemen ought to behave, which he has not been able to instill in his son. I don't think he realizes that the way he goes around belittling Buck has a lot to do with why Buck behaves in a way his father finds so disappointing. Buck is constantly made to feel small by his father, so he tries to do the same to everyone else.

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