The Big Country

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The Big Country
Big country833.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Gregory Peck
William Wyler
Written by Robert Wilder
Starring Gregory Peck
Jean Simmons
Charlton Heston
Carroll Baker
Burl Ives
Music by Jerome Moross
Cinematography Franz F. Planer, ASC
Editing by Robert Belcher
John Faure
Robert Swink (sup)
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • October 1, 1958 (1958-10-01)
Running time 165 minutes
Language English
Box office $4 million (US/Canada rentals) [1]

The Big Country is a 1958 American Western film directed by William Wyler. It stars Gregory Peck, who also co-produced the film with Wyler, plus Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, and Chuck Connors. It was based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton.[2] The opening title sequence was created by Saul Bass.

Ives won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor as well as the Golden Globe Award. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for the musical score by Jerome Moross.


Wealthy, newly retired sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) travels to the American West to join his fiancée Patricia (Carroll Baker) at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. Patricia's friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), owns the "Big Muddy", a large ranch with a vital water supply. She is caught in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud, as she has been allowing Hannassey to use her water for his cattle, while Terrill has been trying to buy her land in order to put Hannassey out of business.

McKay refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing to stop Hannassey's trouble-making son Buck (Chuck Connors) from harassing him, and he declines a challenge by Terrill's foreman, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), to ride an unruly horse. Patricia, Terrill, and Leech consider this to be cowardly in view of the region's lawlessness. When Terrill and the men ride to the Hannassey place in retribution for Buck's harassment, McKay stays at the ranch and successfully rides the unruly horse while telling no one except ranch hand Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya).

One morning, after instructing Ramon to tell the others not to worry about him, McKay rides to the Big Muddy, using a map and compass to navigate the terrain, and persuades Julie to sell him her land by promising to continue her policy of allowing both the Terrills and the Hannasseys access to the river. Meanwhile, a search party spends two days looking for McKay, believing he is lost. McKay finds the search party and explains that he was not in danger, but Leech—who is clearly motivated in part by his jealousy of McKay over Patricia—calls him a liar in front of Patricia and Terrill. McKay again refuses to be goaded into a fight, and he and Patricia agree to reconsider their engagement after she becomes scornful of his apparent cowardice. Early the next morning, before anybody else is up, McKay settles with Leech. They fight away from the house, without witnesses, to an exhausted draw. After that, Leech begins to respect McKay.

Later, after McKay has moved into town, Julie tells Patricia that he bought the Big Muddy and privately rode the horse, and Patricia visits him. When he tells her he plans to allow water access to the Hannasseys, she becomes enraged and they break off their engagement permanently.

Meanwhile, on Terrill's orders, Leech and his men chase Hannassey's cattle away from the Big Muddy. Hannassey, in retaliation, kidnaps Julie and uses her as bait to lure Terrill into an ambush in the narrow canyon leading to Hannassey's home. Buck tries to force himself on her, but his father stops him violently.

When McKay finds out about Julie, for whom his own feelings have been becoming increasingly obvious, he rides to the Hannassey place with Ramon. Buck tells Julie he will kill McKay unless she says she is there willingly. McKay shows Hannassey the deed to Big Muddy and promises him equal access to the water. When Hannassey says he intends to fight Terrill anyway, McKay declares to Hannassey that the fight is really a personal vendetta. McKay and Buck fight with each other, but Hannassey stops the conflict when Buck draws his gun on McKay, who is unarmed, and decides they will settle their quarrel with a formal duel.

After walking apart ten paces, both men turn and aim. Buck fires before the signal, grazing McKay's forehead. Hannassey prepares to kill Buck, as required by the rules, but McKay stops him. As McKay slowly and deliberately takes aim, Buck drops to the ground in terror and crawls behind a wheel. McKay fires into the dirt, and Hannassey spits on Buck in disgust. As McKay and Julie start to leave, Buck grabs a gun from a ranch hand in order to kill McKay, but Hannassey shoots his son dead.

Main theme from the film by Jerome Moross.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Meanwhile, Terrill insists on riding into the canyon. Initially, Leech refuses to accompany him, and the other men follow his lead. However, after Terrill rides out alone, Leech catches up with him. The remaining hands again align themselves with Leech by following. The group soon rides into a trap in the canyon. Acknowledging the truth of McKay's accusation, Hannassey orders his men to stop shooting and challenges Terrill to a one-on-one showdown. Hannassey and Terrill kill each other, and McKay, Julie, and Ramon ride out of the canyon together.



The film was a big hit, being the second most popular movie in Britain in 1959.[3]

Ives won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor as well as the Golden Globe Award. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for the musical score by Jerome Moross.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower liked the movie very much and showed it on four successive evenings in the White House during his second administration.[4]

A theme from Moross' score of The Big Country (as performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) was sampled by MC Tunes versus 808 State in a top 10 UK chart hit, The Only Rhyme That Bites, in 1990. A decade later, girl-group Atomic Kitten used the same sample on their Top 20 hit I Want Your Love in 2000. It is also quoted heavily in Yes' 1970 cover of Richie Havens' song "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed".

In a poll of 500 films held by Empire Magazine, it was voted 187th Greatest Movie of all time.[5]

American Film Institute Lists

Comic book[edit]

A comic book adaptation of the novel and tie-in to the movie was first released in 1957.


The Blanco Canyon scenes were filmed in California's Red Rock Canyon State Park. The ranch and field scenes with greenery were filmed in the central California Sierra foothills near the town of Farmington.[9]


  1. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, 8 January 1964 p 69
  2. ^ American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films
  3. ^ FOUR BRITISH FILMS IN 'TOP 6': BOULTING COMEDY HEADS BOX OFFICE LIST Our own Reporter. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 11 Dec 1959: 4.
  4. ^ Coyne, Michael (1997). The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western. New York, New York: I. B. Tauris. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-86064-259-3. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  7. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees
  8. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
  9. ^ Orvis Cattle Company page about the film locations

External links[edit]