Tuesday, October 13, 2015 at 7:30pm
William Wyler's The Big Country

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

The Big Country, William Wyler, 1958, anamorphic 16mm widescreen, 165 mins
Introduced by Vanessa Renwick

Vanessa Renwick, a stalwart figure of alternative cinema in the Pacific Northwest, comes riding into Light Industry from Portland to present a screening of William Wyler’s remarkable yet underappreciated frontier saga The Big Country.

Wyler only made two other westerns in the sound era—Hell’s Heroes (1930) and The Westerner (1940)—but his genre chops were considerable, having cranked out twenty two-reeler “Mustangs” for Universal as well as several “Blue Streak” five-reel Westerns for the studio prior to the advent of talkies; his action-studded The Ore Raiders (1927) was particularly admired. In The Big Country, Wyler is clearly attuned to the codes and conventions of the form, satisfying the audience’s appetite for widescreen vistas and pistol play while a rather unexpected scenario unfurls. Like so many Westerns, Wyler’s sprawling epic is a drama of social integration. The picture centers around James McKay (Gregory Peck), a handsome, polished seafaring man who journeys to meet his fiance on her family’s ranch, but quickly becomes embroiled in a longstanding feud between his would-be father-in-law and a neighboring patriarch (played by a gruff, seething Burl Ives).

Tensions mount as McKay, with his gentlemanly forbearance, reveals himself to be something of a pacifist, refusing to indulge the petty posturing and macho pugilism that reign as the custom of the country. Indeed, the most extraordinary sequences in the movie aren’t those where Jerome Moross’s grand score heaves and sighs, or when bullets ricochet across Blanco Canyon, but when, for instance, McKay finally agrees to a private, crepuscular brawl with the steely, jealous foreman (Charlton Heston), simply to illustrate the showdown as a zero-sum game. The two figures are pictured as mere specks against the expanse of the otherwise barren landscape, slugging at each other awkwardly until both nearly collapse from exhaustion; male aggression has rarely looked so beautiful, or so absurd. The Western here functions not merely as a soap opera with saddles, but rather as a complex parable about the futility of violence, and the lies we tell to ourselves and others in the course of its perpetuation.

“You think the East Coast is all hoity toity and the West—The Big Country—is where anything goes. But in reality, in this land of men in creaking saddles, the West is full of giant cowboy baby-men who are more uptight than a barbed wire knot, hiding behind their guns. A man of his word, Gregory Peck, arrives as a ship’s captain from the East, with a pacifist calm that confuses. Burl Ives won an Oscar for his sharp-tongued performance as the dad of Chuck Connors, himself the mother and father of all liars. Charlton Heston is the most balled-up mess you could encounter. This West is still playing out in reality: When Obama was elected, eastern Oregon cleaned out the ammunition stores over and over again.” - VR

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.