‘The Big Country’

The landscape is integral to the story of the Old American West, and it’s everywhere in ‘The Big Country’ (1958), framing the characters within its grandiosity.

The film features the usual Western story tropes: feuding family clans, land ownership, battles over water rights, male rivalries, macho confrontations, psychological intimidation, violent conflicts, and feisty women, but no Native American Indians.

Tonally, the film falls somewhere between the American post WW2 identity story and the 1960s Counter Culture. These post WW2 stories are all about men coming home, and adapting to new environments. They’re about finding a new kind of American hero, someone who can lead the nation to a better way of life. In a world filled with injustice, the audience wants to see a humble figure who is willing to fight for what’s right.

The Big Country doesn’t have the depth of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), that film’s social conscience, it’s radical undermining of the Cowboy myth, or its brooding Film Noir atmosphere, but The Big Country is a significant shift away from the helpless homesteader being attacked by monstrous Native American Indians — with the US Cavalry riding in to save the day.

The hero, Captain James McKay, a ship’s captain, is a man out of place in the arid Cowboy landscape. He is polite, behaves meekly, wears the business suit of a city gentleman, and rejects hatred. Any outward signs of ‘weakness’ hides a capable, brave, self-assured hero, who has what it takes.