The Big Country (1958)

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Released 8-Aug-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Western Theatrical Trailer-2.35:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0 (2:45)
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1958
Running Time 159:49 (Case: 95)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (80:09) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By William Wyler
Studio
Distributor

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Gregory Peck
Jean Simmons
Carroll Baker
Charlton Heston
Burl Ives
Charles Bickford
Chuck Connors
Alfonso Bedoya
Case ?
RPI $36.95 Music Jerome Moross


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
German
German for the Hearing Impaired
French
Italian
Spanish
Dutch
Swedish
Norwegian
Danish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Ah, Westerns. You've just got to love them! They take you back to those glorious days of your youth when the height of entertainment was to sit down and watch those movie matinees on television, where Westerns and war films ruled the roost. Obviously MGM Home Entertainment wants to take us, willingly, back to those days by coming up with a collection of films marketed under the Western Legends banner. I for one am very glad to see the appearance of the series and to indulge in one of the true classics of the genre. Shortly before he made that little film that you just might have heard of, Ben-Hur, William Wyler made some rather good films. Just to mention a couple that grace my dreaded Very Hazy System tape collection, we have Mrs Miniver (revered by some as the greatest film ever made and winner of seven Oscars), Wuthering Heights and Roman Holiday (another Oscar winner), but his really big film was The Big Country. I would hate to think how many Oscars the films of William Wyler garnered, and none approached the massive collection of Ben- Hur, but there is something to be told in the fact that so many of his films did seem to garner the accolade. Even this effort came away with one Oscar, best supporting actor for Burl Ives.

    I would also hate to think how many times I have seen The Big Country on television, but sitting down to indulge in it on DVD was an eye opener and a half. Just how the heck I could ever put up with those pan and scan monstrosities on television, I simply do not know, for the use of the widescreen vista by William Wyler in The Big Country is utterly brilliant. This is no more illustrated than the fight between Jim McKay and Steve Leech about 90 minutes into the film. Here you have just two men fist fighting, yet the dimension that this achieves through the use of the widescreen aspect ratio is utterly incredible - and something that was simply never apparent before in pan and scan. It staggers me to remember that three years ago I saw nothing wrong with the pan and scan process...

    Since this is a Western, it obviously has all the clichéd components of that revered genre - the good guy riding into town, the fair damsel awaiting him, the bad guys out doing their stuff, and the shoot-out at high noon. Well, they are all sort-of here, but in a different way that makes this almost an anti-Western Western. The good guy riding into town is actually James McKay (Gregory Peck), a gentlemanly seafarer from Baltimore who has headed west to rejoin his beautiful fiancée Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker). In this sort of fish-out-of-water tale, Jim is a true gentleman and has difficulty adjusting to the rather macho life of the cowboy. Still, for his dearest, he is willing to make the change. Patricia happens to be the daughter of Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), a wealthy rancher with the facade of a gentleman. He also happens to be one half of a feud, the other being Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), a struggling rancher with a gang of thugs for sons. The feud has been running for years over another ranch called the Big Muddy, owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who is trying to honour the commitments of her late grandfather to allow both the Terrills and the Hannasseys access to the permanent water on the Big Muddy. Julie happens to be good friends with Pat and it would seem that the Terrills take the view that they should have the water rights, but not the Hannasseys. So this general background of the feud is the start of the film, when Jim and Pat are greeted by the Hannassey boys whilst making the journey from town to the ranch. Gentlemanly Jim sees no point in pushing the issue over the "introduction" but Pat tells her father and naturally retribution is necessary - which naturally escalates. Throw into the mix Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), foreman for Major Terrill, who resents the arrival of Jim since he himself has designs on Pat.

    Gentlemanly Jim faces the taunts of the more macho Steve and company but deigns to not play by their rules. Thus branded a coward by all and sundry, the glorious reunion with his love does not go well and Jim soon finds himself out on his proverbial ear. However, he is steadfast in his desire not to succumb to the unnecessary violence of the West despite the problems it causes. He rather attacks the situation in his own way, and sends a strong message that violence is no answer. He does however manage to convince Julie to sell him the Big Muddy, on the condition that he gives water access to both the Terrills and the Hannasseys - which he is more than happy to do. However, the feud worsens and Rufus Hannassey decides to force the issue by virtually kidnapping Julie, in order to make her a proposition - marry his son Buck (Chuck Connors), who seems to think that Julie is sweet on him. When that proves to be obviously untrue, Rufus forces her to sign over to him the Big Muddy - which she does since it is not hers to sell. Into the situation rides Gentlemanly Jim to rescue his new love interest. And thus we have a couple of versions of the shoot-out in the main street at high noon.

    What raises The Big Country story-wise out of the mire of mediocrity is the clever use of the Western clichés in an anti-Western way - thus making some utterly clear points about the pointlessness of violence. This is no ordinary Western and William Wyler wishes us to revel in the situation - and revel we do. Despite the result of the penultimate climax being telegraphed from about the fifth minute of the film, this is an engaging story that really keeps us interested throughout. It does not hurt that the characters have been fleshed out by some of the big names of the screen at the time. Gregory Peck is pretty much perfect as the gentleman from the civilised East coming to terms with the uncivilised West. It might be the sort of role that he played seemingly quite frequently but it is the sort of role that he carried off all too easily. The delectable Jean Simmons also manages to carry off her role with relative ease. The combination of proper school marm and reluctant rancher might not be the most obvious of roles, but she sure carried it off completely believably and managed to look terrific whilst doing so. Carroll Baker plays the somewhat spoilt little rancher's daughter well, even down to the complete naivety about the fundamental problem with the Terrill's playing God. Charlton Heston gets to provide the body for the female audience and whilst I personally don't believe he could act his way out of a paper bag, he does exactly what is required of him here. Burl Ives provides the most interesting performance here, and whilst I would not suggest it is that deserving of an Oscar, I have certainly seen worse given the little statuette. But what really makes the whole film is the magnificent use of the wide, widescreen aspect in what is actually very much a character film in my view. However, whilst the characters provide the focus of the action, the use of the very widescreen ratio does so much to not only emphasise the big country but also the characters.

    Despite having seen the film many, many times, this is a revelatory, virtually first time look at the film. As such, this is a terrific indication of what makes DVD so special. What would make it more special, however, is if the film had actually been given a transfer that does it the justice the film deserves. Whilst appreciating the film is older than I am, I would have thought that a little bit more care in the mastering process would not have been out of the question.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Whilst it would seem that the film has not been afforded a full restoration, that is but a minor part of the problem here.

    The transfer is presented in its correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is thankfully 16x9 enhanced. I would not wish to see this on a widescreen television had it not been so enhanced, given the problems in the transfer.

    Straight out, the major problem with the transfer is quite simply some at times atrocious aliasing. This is a consistent problem, especially every time a building seemed to come into view. I simply gave up trying to keep track of the instances of the problem, but the more obvious ones that I did record included: in a building roof at 3:00, in Jim's vest at 6:43, in the buildings at 16:39 (especially bad), at 19:28 in the buildings, consistent problems in buildings between 20:20 and 20:45, an especially gross looking effort in a roof at 20:57 and another equally poor effort at 22:18. Since it became quite pointless to continue taking notes over the problem after that point, I did not do so, but can confirm that the problem continued pretty well throughout the film. And it really did get very distracting at times - I very nearly gave up watching the film because of it.

    In general terms, this is a decently sharp transfer for a film of this vintage, with only a couple of softer sections, usually when one of the female leads were on screen. There is plenty of detail on offer throughout the transfer, quite important when there is such a wide vista to be seen on-screen. Shadow detail is typical of the vintage of the film - average and not approaching the sort of effort we would expect nowadays. Thankfully, the lack of shadow detail was not too much of an impediment to the film, apart from the aforementioned fight scene around the 90 minute mark. Clarity is excellent throughout, with only modest amounts of grain coming to the fore once in a while. There did not appear to be any serious low level noise problems in the transfer.

    The film is very evocative of the perception of the American West, with plenty of dusty looking colours on offer. Whilst a bit more relief in the colour department would not have gone astray, it would of course had some deleterious effects upon the believability of the palette offered. Interior shots were generally very well-handled with plenty of saturation. Despite the dusty effect generated, this is actually quite a vibrant looking transfer that is really easy on the eye. There is no indication of colour oversaturation in the transfer and nothing in the way of colour bleed either. Whilst greater depth to the colours would have been the order of the day if the film were made today, the film captures all the feel of the West that would be lacking somewhat in a modern film.

    There did not appear to be any MPEG artefacts in the transfer. Having already mentioned the main problem with the transfer, it is pleasing to report that there did not seem to be any other major film-to-video artefact problems. There were a few minor issues with shimmer in the background at times, but this well-and-truly paled in comparison to the general aliasing issues. Naturally enough for an unrestored forty-odd year old film, we have a collection of film artefacts on offer. Disappointingly, it would seem that the transfer has not been mastered from an interpositive, as there seemed to be some indications of reel change markings at 52:06, 70:01, 87:35, 103:53 and 129:49. If these are reel change markings, then they have only been partially successful in removing them in the mastering phase. Whilst most of the film only has the sort of general artefacts we would expect in a film of this vintage, there were some sections such as at 3:58 where there were veritable snowstorms of artefacts.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming mid-scene at 80:09. It is just a bit too obvious for my liking and I cannot help but feel that about seven seconds later it could have been inserted with far less obviousness.

    The English subtitles on offer here are very good, about 90% to 95% accurate I would say, and do not miss much that is important in the dialogue. They are very easy to read, being nice and sharp and of a reasonable size font.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are four soundtracks on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, a French Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, an Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Whilst they are not so marked, they really have the characteristics of a mono soundtrack with everything being fed pretty much to the centre channel. I stuck with the English soundtrack with only relatively brief samplings of the other options.

    The dialogue comes through reasonably clear and easy to understand in the transfer, with just a few passages where I was pleased that I was sampling the subtitles at the time. There did not seem to be any audio sync problems in the transfer.

    The music score comes from Jerome Moross, and an absolute beauty it is too. Aside from a very memorable theme tune, the entire score is highlighted by the fact that the composer felt no need to fill every minute of the film with sound. The result is a gorgeously evocative soundtrack where silence is as effectively used as the music itself. There are some quite extended sections where there is no dialogue, no music and no action on screen, and the result is some of the most evocative film that you could ever wish to see. I have said it before - modern composers need to go back and watch these older films to see how effective silence can be. When the music does cut in, it is not that clichéd and is very effective in supporting the film.

    Whilst I would not have been surprised if this were a mono soundtrack, I am giving it the benefit of the doubt and saying it is stereo mixed so that pretty much all sound comes straight out of the centre channel. Combined with the higher bitrate used in the soundtrack, this gives the sound a fair amount of body - significantly more than I was otherwise expecting. Whilst the lack of serious oomph to the sound is regretted at times, I really have no complaints at all with the sound. It does the job required of it, as the film is not one heavily blessed with sound effects (even being very restrained in the fight scene, making it all the more powerful) and rarely would a 5.1 effort have done a better job of conveying the mood of the film. It is free from any obvious distortions, so at least there are no concerns from that point of view.



Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Not a heck of a lot to worry about here at all!

Menu

    Nothing especially terrific about it, apart from the fact that it is 16x9 enhanced.

Theatrical Trailer (2:45)

    This is a bit of a puzzle - whilst it has the look of a theatrical trailer, it is missing any of the usual cast and crew details that we would normally see in a trailer. The end seems to be a bit truncated, and I cannot help but wonder whether this was not so much a trailer as opposed to a short summation of the film. Either way, it has plenty of problems in terms of aliasing and film artefacts. Not unwatchable but certainly showing the signs of age. Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Whilst there is a dearth of reliable reviews of the Region 1 version of the film, it would seem that it is identically featured as the Region 4. Unless there is a significant improvement in the aliasing department, I would be loathe to suggest the Region 1 version is any better than the Region 4.

Summary

    The Big Country is another wonderful hark back to the good old days, when matinees were matinees and Westerns were the staple of our lives. It is a great shame that the DVD has been afflicted with so much of an aliasing problem, for in all other respects I would doubt that the film has looked so good in years. To finally see it in all of its widescreen glory is a delight. I would strongly suggest that you check this out by rental first, to see how affected you are by the aliasing. Otherwise, well worth considering despite the lack of an extras package.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Monday, August 27, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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