It's the early 1910s and young, powerful Texas rancher Jordan 'Bick' Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels to a farm in Maryland to buy a strong, beautiful young horse. There, he finds what he's looking for and much, much more. Instantly struck, Bick marries the seller's daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), who's as equally moved by the big, strong Texan. Leslie travels back to Texas with Bick where she's stunned by the immensity of the Benedict ranch, hundreds of thousands of acres with cattle numbering in the thousands. The life is hard but worthwhile...for those accustomed to it. Leslie is used to a certain openness about living and prejudices and beliefs, none of which she finds in Texas. The marriage is just weeks old, but Bick and Leslie begin to butt heads almost immediately. The young couple with everything at their disposal, right at their fingertips, is heading into a turbulent time, both for themselves but also for Texas.
Some movies just scream EPIC, and in the age of the monster budget, historical epics, this 1956 Texas family drama from director George Stevens certainly qualifies. Based off a novel from author Edna Ferber, this is a big old movie. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. The scope and scale is gigantic. Stevens took advantage of the widescreen filming techniques, filling the screen with the wide expanses of the Texas plains in all its sunny and sandy glory. Visually, 'Giant' is a stunner. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is solid but more subdued than most of his more well-known scores and with an obvious reliance on some patriotic Texas songs. A must in an epic -- seemingly -- is to get a message across though, to say something. That's where 'Giant' seems to stumble in a big way. I don't know if it's trying to say much of anything. That's for a little later. For now, here's some positives to take away.
So big story, big setting....yeah, we need a big cast. Two rising stars who were definitely on the way to bigger and better things in Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. I was interested in these characters which is a credit to Hudson and Taylor because let's be honest. These aren't especially likable characters. They bicker, fight and argue about anything and everything. Love at first sight....until real life settles in. So they're not especially likable, but they do a fine job bringing these characters to life. It feels like real life, two madly in love individuals figuring out marriage and love isn't so easy. Neither is a truly great performance, but they're very solid performances just the same.
Unfortunately, 'Giant' was remembered both then and now for the sudden, tragic death of one of its cast members. That actor? The iconic James Dean, star of just three movies before his sudden passing in 1955 before the film was completely finished, just 24 years old when he died. Here, he plays Jett Rink, a lower class cowboy working on the Benedict Ranch, a thorn in Bick's side but liked by everyone else. Jett was my favorite character, a remotely sympathetic anti-hero just trying to make his way, to carve out a niche for himself. A late monologue had to be re-recorded because the dubbing hadn't been completed before his surprising death during post-production. It's a quiet, understated part with some great moments (early on at least), especially when Jett's land proves to be far more valuable than originally thought. An obvious influence on many actors who would rise to stardom in the coming years, Dean is a gem.
Okay, enough with the relative positives. I love epics, especially those from the 1950s and early 1960s. This one pushed even me to the limits to the point I struggled to get through the last hour-plus in a movie that already runs 201 minutes. The first 90-120 minutes are pretty good if nothing classic in my mind. Then from there on in, the story jumps to when Bick and Leslie are far older, their empire grown, their family established and all grown up. At this point, all the issues introduced early are basically brushed aside. The story -- not exactly fast-moving up to this point -- grinds to a complete halt. Characters are introduced and dispatched with little fanfare. It drifts aimlessly until an ending that to put it lightly is disappointing. Was there an ending in mind that actually accomplished something? 'Giant' limps to the finish line after a painfully slow 3-hour road trip.
That's the biggest issue. What -- if anything -- is it trying to say? It's obviously a story focused on family and Texas and all their drama. Let's say this though. There is A LOT of drama. It's everything from marital strife to racism, sexism to political corruption, old school versus new school, parenting methods to manipulation of all sorts and on countless different levels, cattle ranching to becoming an oil baron. Pick one, or even two or three, and run with it. Instead, Giant just barrels ahead with all of the above and lets things fall where they may.
Now back to the casting. The characters may not always be very good, but the star power is impressive. Mercedes McCambridge does what she does best as Luz, Bick's sister who's a tomboy, a bit of a spinster, and if this movie was in 2014...a tough as nails lesbian. Chill Wills is solid in a more subdued part as Bick's very Texas uncle. As for the younger generation that pops up in the last third of the movie, look for Carroll Baker, Sal Mineo, Earl Holliman, and Dennis Hopper. Oh, and for good measure, Paul Fix and Rod Taylor have underused supporting parts so there's that. A big disappointment for me though, one I really, REALLY wanted to love. I came away barely tolerating it. A major disappointment.
Giant (1956): **/****