CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
“The Big Country” technically could be classed as range-war western, but while the typical range-war western is big on action and depicts tit-for-tat escalating cycles of violence, “The Big Country”–other than a brief but bloodless skirmish near the start of the film leaves the looming clash between the Terrills and the Hannasseys until the final twenty-or-so minutes of a three-hour film.
It seems to me that “The Big Country” can more properly be seen as a domestic drama. An Eastener, James McKay travels west to wed the daughter of a wealthy rancher. The man is wealthy in his own right and has been the captain of his own sailing vessel. He’s neither a fortune-hunter nor a ninny. But the folks who live on or around Maj. Henry Terrill’s Ladder Ranch insist on seeing him in just that light. The chief culprit here is Steve Leech, the virile boss of the Ladder Ranch who takes one look at McKay, stylishly decked out and wearing a derby and decides that this man is a sorry excuse for one. Leech neither knows nor cares that McKay, in his years as a ship’s captain has probably dealt with more than his share of fo’-castle bullies and malcontents. Major Terrill keeps stressing how vast the land is, but has never sailed the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans so he’s certain that his daughter’s dandified betrothed will be lost in its vastness. Leech tries several times to test McKay–with a bucking bronco, with an invitation to fisticuffs–to show McKay up as a coward and an inferior sort of man, but McKay refuses to take the bait, thus confirming Leech’s opinion of him in the eyes of one and all, including his spoiled and headstrong fiancée. But McKay accepts each challenge in his own way and at his own time. Thus he will ride “Old Thunder” when there’s only an audience of one to see it, and he’ll batter Leech to a draw, but only in the dead of night with no witnesses at all. This is the McKay angle of the film, the fish-out-of-water plotline.
The other plotline is the range war being fought between Maj. Terrill and his neighbor Rufus Hannassey over water rights. Terrill has more men and he has Leech. Hannassey has a passel of unruly sons presided over by Buck–in certain ways a mirror image of Leech. He too despises McKay as a “dude” upon first sight. He too will learn that McKay is no slouch in a fist-fight. Terrill has acres and acres of wide open spaces and a mansion to go with them. The Hannasseys exist in the cramped confines of Blanco Canyon and dwell in an adobe ranch-house. Yet for all of his posturing, subtle hints are dropped throughout that Hannassey was once–perhaps before the war–Terrill’s social superior. Rufus knows the rules covering “affairs of honor.” As I said the range war takes up a tiny portion of the film’s running time and is not even the film’s dramatic highpoint. That occurs earlier when Rufus is forced to shoot Buck after Buck cheated in a duel with McKay. When McKay fought Leech, his final ironic comment was, “What did we prove?” He might have said the same after the duel with Buck. In the end Terrill and Hannassey face each other in Blanco Canyon and the two embittered old men shoot each other down, thus ending their feud.
Part of the charm of “The Big Country” is the time it takes to tell its story. Like McKay it won’t be rushed into anything. I think it fails to be an epic only because it has no epic theme. It’s not about some perilous expedition to a heretofore unexplored part of the country, or the building of a transcontinental railroad, or the trains of covered wagons that carried would-be settlers west. Its battle, when it finally comes, is small and inconclusive. It’s a film about a stranger in a strange land and two proud men who can not be reconciled to living with each other.