This Saturday on PBS 6, Hollywood at Home will screen the epic 1958 western “The Big Country,” starring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives in an Oscar-winning performance.
Everything about this film is big — it has a big director, William Wyler, winner of two Academy Awards; one of the biggest and most lavish sets ever built on the Samuel Goldwyn Studios lot in Hollywood; and location filming on a 3,000-acre ranch in California’s Central Valley.
Even the projected image on the screen was oversized. The movie was shot in a new wide-screen process called “technirama” that produced the widest image ever projected up to that time.
In the film, Peck plays a wealthy, newly retired sea captain who comes west intending to marry his beautiful fiancée and settle down on her family’s ”big” cattle ranch. However, he soon finds himself an unwilling participant in an inter-family war over water rights.
Peck’s character doesn’t believe violence is the way to settle the feud, which causes the ranch hands to question his manhood. A mutual dislike soon develops between him and the ranch foreman, played by Heston. His fiancée shares the foreman’s "macho" sensibilities, which causes friction between the engaged couple.
As the stakes rise in the water war, Peck’s peace-loving sea captain must find a way to prove himself, and the two families must find a way to coexist.
Wyler and Peck were friends when they teamed up to co-produce “The Big Country.” Director Wyler had spent most of his career trying, without success, to have full control of his pictures. Peck felt the same way, so their collaboration seemed like a good match. Wyler would be in charge of directing with the final say in artistic matters, while Peck secured the cast, script, publicity through United Artists, wardrobe, makeup and the rest of the technical crew.
But Donald Hamilton’s novel proved hard to adapt and problems began as soon as work started on the screenplay. At least six different screenwriters worked on the project, resulting in a script that was too long and unsatisfactory to Wyler and Peck.
However the shooting schedule couldn’t be changed without losing major talent to other projects, so filming had to begin. This meant Peck and the screenwriters huddled over the script after each day’s filming. On many mornings the actors would arrive on set to find that lines and sometimes entire scenes were completely different from what they had memorized the night before.
Actress Jean Simmons in particular found this a challenge. She was so traumatized by the experience, she refused to talk about the movie until an interview in the late '80s when she revealed, “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 acting damned near impossible.”
One of the most unfortunate disputes on the movie was the falling out between Wyler and Peck. The two had numerous disagreements over different aspects of the film. The final straw came when Peck watched dailies of a completed scene and wanted to reshoot his close-up. Wyler refused. Peck was so incensed he walked off the set and only his agent’s coaxing was able to bring him back. The relationship soured so severely that the two men refused to speak to each other for the rest of the shoot.
Two years later, Wyler and Peck finally patched up their relationship backstage at the 1960 Academy Awards when Peck congratulated Wyler on his directing Oscar for “Ben-Hur.” When they shook hands, Wyler reportedly said, "Thanks, but I still won’t retake that buckboard scene."
“The Big Country” was said to be one of President Eisenhower's favorite films. He screened it four times at the White House and called it, “Simply the best film ever made. My number one favorite film."
Hollywood at Home airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on PBS 6 with host Victoria Lucas. Lucas will provide facts, behind-the scenes information and historical context on some of Hollywood’s best films.