The Big Country

  • Directors: William Wyler
  • Producers: Gregory Peck, William Wyler
  • Writers: Robert Wilder
  • Genres: Drama, Romance, Western
  • Actors: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons

Wealthy, newly-retired sea captain and ship-owner James McKay (Gregory Peck) travels to the American west to rejoin his fiancée Patricia (Carroll Baker), whom he had met back East, at the enormous ranch of her father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). Terrill is a powerful rancher who is feuding with the equally tough patriarch of a poorer, uncouth, and less refined clan, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). Patricia’s best friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), is caught between the two, as she is the owner of the “Big Muddy”, a (smaller) big ranch with a vital source of water desired by both men; Hannassey desperately needs it for his cattle, while Terrill wants to gain control of it to bring his rival down.

McKay is a puzzle to Major Terrill, his foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) and even his fiancee; he refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, even when harassed. We learn that McKay’s father died in a duel, and — as McKay explains to Terrill — no one could remember what the duel was about. One morning, McKay rides out alone, goes to the Big Muddy, and persuades Julie to sell him the ranch, promising her that both the Terrills and the Hannesseys will always have access to the river, hoping that this will defuse the conflict. She agrees to the sale.

Meantime, Terrill, Leech and their men have ridden into the ambush and are pinned down in the canyon. Although Leech realized that the risk was too great, he is unable to dissuade Terrill from going into the canyon, and ultimately Leech follows him in out of loyalty. Acknowledging the truth of McKay’s accusation, Hannassey orders his men to hold their fire. He then challenges Terrill to come out and face him man to man. The two men walk to a final showdown and kill each other. McKay and Julie ride out together.