THE LEGENDARY EPIC THAT’S AS BIG AS TEXAS.
Before Dallas, there was Giant. A sprawling soap opera set in Texas, George Stevens’s film has been welcomed by the state as its very own version of Gone With the Wind (1939) – which is quite an achievement since this is pretty much a condemnation of racist policies and traditions that were still very strong in Texas at the time. But it did strike a chord. Perhaps it simply shows that old-fashioned, handsome filmmaking that tells a great story could help the medicine go down.
The story begins in the early twentieth century when Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a wealthy Texas rancher, goes to Maryland to buy a precious horse from the Lynntons. He falls in love with their daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after some initial opposition they get married and journey back to Benedict’s home, Reata, the family ranch. At first, Leslie not only has to get used to life in dusty, roughhewn Texas, but also contends with her husband’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who views Leslie as a threat to her status as head of the household.
The new Mrs. Benedict also meets Jett Rink (James Dean), who works at the ranch but regards the Benedicts with contempt… except Leslie whom he develops a crush on. After a tragic accident, Jett is granted a piece of land on the Benedict property. This will alter the future – for everyone.
True to Ferber’s themes
The film was made four years after Edna Ferber published her novel, and it is true to her themes. The story portrays the rise of the oil industry in Texas and its immense wealth, pitting Rink against the Benedict family in a struggle over land and the black gold. But that’s not really what’s most important. Ferber always wrote strong female characters and she has one in the Maryland girl who marries into Texas nobility, but refuses to yield entirely to the arch-conservative ways of the men who rule the state. Leslie questions why politics in Texas has to be reserved only for men, and she badgers her husband over the unacceptable living conditions for the Mexican immigrants who do all the hard labor at Reata.
The fight against racism is the second key theme for Ferber. It takes decades for Bick to understand why the treatment of minorities is unfair, and in the end he stands up for Latinos largely because he has no choice when his son marries one. Still, the film’s most powerful scene comes when Bick challenges the racist owner of a diner; the point is delivered in a bizarrely bloody, harrowing fashion… but it’s effective (and touching) as hell. But this is also a soap opera spanning several decades, one that shows how history doesn’t always repeat itself, especially not the way parents hope. There’s a sense of humor to that aspect of the story, and more darkness in the depiction of the increasingly bitter and unhappy Jett who becomes so rich he could buy a country… but not the thing he truly wants.
The film is superbly photographed by William C. Mellor, eye-poppingly grandiose in its views of the Texan landscape, complex in more intimate scenes where shadows add an extra layer.
Dean is magnificent as Jett, his Method craft on glorious display. Hudson and Taylor also deserve kudos for their less showy but down-to-earth efforts. Ironically, while shooting what became their most touching scene together, at the wedding where they reunite after having argued, the actors were so hungover that all they could think about was trying not to throw up. Stevens makes it look like great acting. A true collaborative effort, this film.
Giant 1956-U.S. 201 min. Color. Produced by Henry Ginsberg, George Stevens. Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay: Fred Guiol, Ivan Moffat. Novel: Edna Ferber. Cinematography: William C. Mellor. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Lynnton Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan “Bick” Benedict), James Dean (Jett Rink), Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills… Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor.
Trivia: Alan Ladd and Grace Kelly were allegedly considered for roles. Dean died in a car crash shortly after finishing the film; some of his dialogue was dubbed in post-production.
Oscar: Best Director.
Last word: “George Stevens was very independent. He wouldn’t take any orders from the studio. Several times Jack Warner tried to have certain scenes modified. Namely, the (derogatory) reference Elizabeth Taylor makes to the oil depletion allowance which favored oil companies. Something like, ‘How about an appreciation for first class brains?’ The oil interests put pressure on the studio, and Jack Warner begged Stevens to take the line out. George said, ‘No dice’.” (Moffat, American Legends)