No matter what the genre, I tend to prefer small movies to big ones. For instance, I’ll take No Name On The Bullet (1959) over, say, Warlock (1958), or It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) over Alien (1979). But lately I’ve been immersed in one of the really big Westerns, The Big Country (1958). It’s an epic that wears its hugeness quite well. I must admit (again), this is a picture I was convinced to revisit by posts on other blogs (thanks, Laura and Colin).
John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows recently admitted that “Boeing, Boeing took on added interest after all I’d read about its troubled production.” Similarly, my interest in The Big Country was enhanced by its behind-the-scenes stories — seven writers, Jean Simmons refusing to talk about it for decades, a lasting feud between producer/star Gregory Peck and director William Wyler, etc.
Researching this one has been a blast. Here’s just a sampling.
Gregory Peck: “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck and Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script. But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman. We had financing from United Artists. So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”
Jean Simmons: “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning. It made the acting damned near impossible.”
Charlton Heston: “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.”
Jean Simmons: “Willie Wyler was downright nasty and impossible to work with. He always selects a victim to go after on each picture. This time it was me.”
Burl Ives: “I found Willy delightful. I never got annoyed at him. I learned a helluva lot from him. He was enigmatic sometimes, but that’s what he did to make me figure things out.”
Gregory Peck: “We have one hour of film — one million dollars worth — that was absolutely wasted, thrown on the cutting room floor. That’s the difference between profit and loss for me.”
William Wyler: “Would I cut it today? Yes, I would cut it. I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.”
Gregory Peck: “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money. Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”
Sources: A Talent For Trouble, The Big Country laserdisc*, A Charmed Life, The William Wyler Interviews, The Ocala Star, classicimages.com
* If you have this old laserdisc, don’t discard it in favor of the DVD. The LD boasts a ton of supplemental stuff, while the DVD is as bare bones as they get. UPDATE: The Blu-ray, which is gorgeous, didn’t include any of that material, either.
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