Monday, April 12, 2010

Epic #2: Giant (1956)

With racial tension, greed and east-meets-west ideology, the drama erupts as often as the oil geysers in George Stevens' Giant (1956), a mega-sized epic based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel of the same name.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Ferber was one of the most prolific historical authors and playwrights of the first half of the 20th century, chronicling the western expansion and Southern gentility of the country in a way that certainly caught the eye of Hollywood. Written long after the film adaptations of Show Boat, Stage Door, Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Giant certainly wasn't the first Ferber novel adapted to the screen, and it wouldn't be the last.

Set in the Texas plains at the turn of the 20th century, Stevens' faithful adaptation chronicles the twenty-five tumultuous years of a cattle rancher's family during the Texas oil boom. The opening scene, full of rare, rolling green hills, sees Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) traveling to purchase a black stallion named "War Winds" when he comes back with more than he bargained for.

A modern, eastern woman, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) is an embodiment of new age feminism in direct contrast with the archaic hierarchy of Bick, or properly, Jordan. She reaches out to sick "wetbacks" working out in the outlying villages of the monstrous Reata Ranch, challenges her husband's hoary manners and upsets the overseer of the mansion, Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), a West Texas Mrs. Danvers.

Also working on the Ranch is a drawl, baby-faced cowboy named Jett Rink (James Dean in his last performance - convincing as a detached mumbler, not so much as a cold, aging mogul) who spurns Bick after the death of Luz in an act of either jealousy or naive defiance, off to live out in the plains, gawking at Bick's fresh catch (Taylor) and pounding away at the earth looking for some of that black gold.

As the film gently progresses, with Bick and Leslie Benedict graying as their kids grow older (into a young Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker, no less), so too do the fortunes of Mr. Rink (Dean), now a prosperous oil tycoon, leaving Bick's cattle looking antiquated as the bright red "Jetexas" oil trucks drive by.

And thus Rock Hudson's Bick Benedict becomes a stubborn, sympathetic and dated figure, still clinging to his traditional values as the world around him evolves beyond his comprehension. His children want no part of his ceaseless Reata and his daily grazing is no longer needed to oversee the mechanical monstrosities of progress clouding his fields.

It's easy to find a resemblance between Giant (1956) and a recent oil-epic, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007), which were both shot on location in Marfa, Texas. While Edna Ferber is certainly more nostalgic in her view of the dusty, seeping plains of the West, it's hard to not think of Daniel Plainview when Bick Benedict is lounging around in his robe, arguing with his son under the roof of an endless, echoed mansion - the American Dream dissolving before his eyes. [B]

(201 minutes, Warner Bros.)

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