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Giant (1956)

May 20th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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Cattle rancher “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) arrives in Maryland to buy a prized stallion. He becomes enamored with the horse breeder’s strong-willed daughter Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), who lays eyes on Bick and stays up all night studying her Texas history. She later tells him, “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean, away from Mexico.” Despite wounding Bick’s state pride, the couple elopes, and Bick brings her back to his 595,000-acre Reata Ranch in the desolate Texas Panhandle.

Leslie goes out of her way to talk to the Mexican ranch hands and servants, despite Bick’s warning, “Here, we don’t make a fuss over those people. You’re a Texan now.” His tough sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) runs the ranch, and is immediately threatened by Leslie’s presence. Leslie is coveted by a cocky ranch hand named Jett Rink (James Dean), who also desires the wealth and power of his employer.

Leslie oversteps her boundaries by sending the family doctor to the Mexican settlement to treat a sick child, and refuses to mind her place in a political conversation the men are having. Leslie and Bick have three children, but their relationship becomes strained, and she decides to take them back to Maryland. Meanwhile, Jett comes into possession of land, but refuses to sell out to Bick. The upstart begins pumping for oil.

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Edna Ferber based much of her epic 1952 novel on Robert Kleberg’s massive King Ranch in West Texas. She had been a guest there, and when her book was published, Kleberg considered it a betrayal. He hated Giant so much there was even threat of a lawsuit. For this reason, and the fact that a film version would be expensive, none of the studios went near it.

Director George Stevens and Edna Ferber and a former Paramount executive named Henry Ginsberg formed a partnership, teaming with Warner Brothers to make the picture. None of them took a salary, and Stevens worked on the $5.4 million film for four years without pay.

Audrey Hepburn was offered the lead, but turned it down. Grace Kelly was considered, but she was under contract to MGM. 23-year-old Elizabeth Taylor called Stevens, and though seven months pregnant, she assured him she would be ready to work in three months. Though they lacked the marquee value of William Holden and Robert Mitchum, Stevens took a gamble on the younger, lesser known Rock Hudson (29) and James Dean (23) to play opposite Taylor. It became Dean’s final film role.

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The legendary reputation Giant has attained – particularly in Texas – matches its magnificence. This is a great film on so many levels. Instead of just being an entertainment, the screenplay adaptation by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat was one of the first to address racism. Segregation between Anglo and Mexican is still an institution in many parts of Texas, and this movie deals with that in a subtle, but substantial way.

Along with Mercedes McCambridge’s daring character, Elizabeth Taylor – who received top billing – plays an intelligent, compassionate, yet resolute woman who refuses to be a subordinate to men. This was the mid-1950s, and portrayals of independent women were extremely rare to come by in movies. But instead of feeling like this was part of a political agenda, it’s just one vivid contrast in a film full of them.

The novel opened in Texas, but the movie begins in lush, green Maryland. We only see the flat, sun scorched Texas when Leslie does, and the way Stevens puts that on screen is potent. Luz takes one look at the wilting Leslie and states, “Your blood’s too thin. That’s the trouble with a lot of Easterners.” This story is brimming with strong drama. East versus West. Master versus servant. Husband versus wife.

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There are no heroes or villains here. Instead, the characters all have fallacies. Along with that, George Stevens used an understated style. The camera angles and editing don’t call attention to themselves, but Stevens demonstrates total command of image and its emotional capability. There’s no dialogue for the first four minutes, yet the story absorbed me from the start, and many sequences of the 201-minute film resonated with me emotionally.

Great epics have the ability to capture both sweeping panoramas and the intimate interactions between human beings with equal beauty. Lawrence of Arabia does this, so does The Godfather Part II. Giant belongs in that elite class. Dimitri Tiomkin composed the tremendous musical score, and received one of the film’s ten Academy Award nominations.

Giant is a must-see for film lovers. It’s a close second for my favorite film either about the Lone Star State, or shot there. Cast and crew spent two months on the plains outside Marfa, filming around a Gothic house designed by art director Boris Leven. Only the front and sides were constructed, and all the interiors were filmed on soundstages in L.A. Little if anything of the location remains today.

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Tags: Based on novel · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · Road trip · Shot In Texas · Train · Western

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jodie // May 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

    You are correct in that this movie is a must-see for movie lovers. Whether you agree with any of the statements it tries to make or not, it’s epic.
    (No mention of Carroll Baker or Dennis Hopper… this movie is the reason I started searching for more movies with Carroll Baker)

  • 2 SDG // Dec 8, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Very intelligent review…

  • 3 dave // Feb 8, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Loved it before I had a chance to see it on the big screen, loved it more after that experience. Yes it’s epic but it’s intimate as well.

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