William Wyler directed “The Big Country”, and Gregory Peck played the male lead. Burl Ives stole the movie from Peck, Charlton Heston and an all-star cast.
Burl Ives’s big daddy in The Big Country has more honor than his Big Daddy in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Both tyrrant father roles were written with Burl Ives in mind, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing them, though many actors have played Big Daddy in revivals of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Neither of these fictional SOB fathers is at all congruent with the cuddly-looking man who popularized “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Blue Tail Fly,” and “Foggy Foggy Dew.”
Peck, as a wealthy retired ship captain, comes west to marry Charles Bickford’s daughter, played by Carol Baker. He steps into a feud between Ives’s family and Bickford’s enormous cattle ranch. It’s about access to water on a ranch Jean Simmons just inherited from her father. She is determined to continue her father’s practice of preventing a war by letting both families’ cattle drink on her land.
Bickford’s character is extremely courteous and refined.
Ives’s challenge as an actor is to look like a crude redneck who shows occasional flashes of virtue that blossom into a full-blown code of honor late in the movie. He must make the audience believe his code is so strong that he kills his son for violating it.
For most of the movie, Ives looks like the bad guy and Bickford looks good.. In the final 20 minutes, the movie’s moral universe turns on its head.
Big Daddy’s greed and tyranny in Cat is simpler.
Charlton Heston and Chuck Connors
Charlton Heston is foreman of Bickford’s ranch, and Chuck Connors is top hand for his father, Burl Ives. When Peck first arrives from the East wearing a three-piece suit and bowler hat, both give him a hazing. Peck loses Baker’s respect when he refuses to fight back.
Though he appears a coward in front of the ranch hands, he secretly breaks the wild horse Heston tried to trick him into riding in front of the ranch hands. He beats up Connors, also in secret. When Baker finds out, she falls back in love with Peck.
The plot starts coming to a head when Ives and Connors force Simmons to come to their house and refuse to let her leave until she gives them her ranch. They don’t know she just sold it to Peck after he promised to keep the water open to everyone.
Ives’s first act of honor is stopping his son from raping Simmons.
Peck arrives the next morning to free the woman, and show Ives his deed, which has just been recorded. Connors still wants to fight the unarmed Peck. Peck happens to have in his saddlebag a fair of antique dueling pistols he had brought west.
Ives insists that his son fight Peck with those, and not use his fast-draw. Ives tells the duelists the rules, and promises to shoot dead anyone who shoots too soon. Connors does, and misses. Facing Peck’s free shot, he dissolves and hides behind a wagon wheel. Ives keeps his promise and kills his son, the coward.
The movie resolves in a confrontation between the armed hands of both ranches. Ives stops the fight and faces Bickford alone. It’s one of Ives’s strongest, most complex characters. He won the Golden Globe and Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for this role.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.