I feel like I say this at least two or three times a month but it bears repeating. I’m not generally a fan of dramas before the 1960s (film noir is the major exception to that rule). 95% of the time, the Hays Code just kept them from being interesting. They’re all too (especially in comparison to modern dramas) clean and sterilized. So, it’s always great when I come across a non-noir drama from that era that still holds up really well even by today’s standards. Thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James Dean and a shockingly progressive story about racism against Mexicans in the 1920s-1950s, George Stevens’ inter-generational epic Giant was a fascinating (if flawed and extraordinarily too long) look into a time when the cinematic form was finally able to be a little more aware of the tragedies going on in the world around them (rather than serving as a reflection of the societal ideal and ignoring the uglier truths of American society) as well as taking an opportunity to tell a more morally complex and mature tale than the usual Hollywood fare of the time. If we only take the films nominated for Best Picture into account (because The Searchers wasn’t nominated but was easily the best film of that year), Giant was easily better than the over-the-top adventure tale of Around the World in Eighty Days.Giant’s not a perfect film, but I was shocked by how rarely my more cynical side wanted to come out to heckle the more idealistic/romantic side of period dramas of this era.
Taking place over nearly three decades on a nearly 600,000 acre cattle ranch in Texas, Giant is a sprawling film that unveils its ultimate message on greed and pride over the course of three and a half hours. On a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) meets the beautiful and independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after only knowing each other for two days, they marry. Bick takes Leslie back with him to his family’s massive Texas cattle ranch which Bick runs along with his masculine and domineering sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Bick maintains a rivalry with a surly and shiftless cattle hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who inherits a small plot of land on the Benedict estate when Luz dies in a horse accident. Jett’s infatuation with Leslie as well his unwillingness to sell back his inherited land to the Benedicts causes an unspoken strife among the families. When, several years later, Jett strikes oil on his plot of land (and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Texas), Jett’s fortunes rise while the Benedicts slowly begin to decline and their class snobbery suddenly begins to reverse. Faced with either selling his land to Jett or giving up the family trade of cattle to pursue the oil business, Bick decides to enter the oil game even though he doesn’t achieve the same kind of wealth as Jett. Throughout this, we get a recurring subplot about the horrendous conditions that the Mexican ranchhands working Bick’s land must face and the complete lack of empathy from all of the white ranchmen (and eventual oil barons) considering their plight. Only Leslie seems to have any sympathy for them, and twenty years later (when she and Bick have grown children), the eldest son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries one of the local Mexican girls causing a local scandal which forces Bick to come to terms with his own prejudice.
Despite the film’s absurdly exhaustive length (serious cuts could have and should have been made to this film. Just because you’re movie is about Texas doesn’t mean it needs to be as big as Texas), Giant had plenty going for it. First of all, James Dean could have had a career as huge as Marlon Brando’s if he hadn’t died in a car accident at the age of 24. Giant was the second film he received a Best Actor nomination for (though, honestly, he was a supporting player in this film) and (despite being in the wrong category) it was well deserved. He brought a wounded, brooding sensitivity to the role. Their was such a fierce naturalism and realism to his performance that he was acting in an entirely different style and class than everyone else in the film. This was the turning point from the classical Laurence Oliver style theatrical acting of the past to the more modern, method style employed by a lot of the top actors of the 60s and 70s (Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, etc). James Dean was at the forefront of that, and it’s hard for me to believe that Yul Brynner was better in The King and I. James Dean was acting circles around everyone else in the movie. That’s not to insult the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They just came from an entirely different school of acting. Rock Hudson also had a more sophisticated sensitivity and Elizabeth Taylor’s intellectual ferocity was a refreshing mix-up from most of the women of the day. However, there was zero romantic chemistry between Hudson and Taylor (though perhaps I’m reading too much into that because I know that Rock Hudson was gay. However, James Dean was bisexual and he just dripped with sexuality).
While the Best Director Oscar certainly should have gone to John Ford for The Searchers (he wasn’t nominated. The Academy really fucked it up that year in that regard), George Stevens’ win that year is at least bearable. Giant is full to the brim of breath-taking shots of the Texas plains, and his camera (and film) patiently capture the transformation of these plains from tens of thousands of cattle to an endless lane of giant oil rigs. Similarly, the film captures the dichotomy between the ever-growing wealth of the Benedicts and Jett compared to the endless poverty and subjugation of the peasant Mexican farmers. It manages to accomplish all of this without going into huge grand speeches and when Bick realizes the error of his ways, it comes at a natural pace (and he isn’t completely cured so to speak). As mentioned, George Stevens’ wrested brilliant performances from his leads and knew better than to try and restrain the fiery James Dean with the contemporary conventions of that age. At the end of the day (and I don’t know how much credit to give to Stevens and how much to give to the cinematographer), Giant is simply a gorgeously shot film. If only he had known to put the same sort of care into editing it down to a manageable length.
Seriously though. This movie is more bloated than Lawrence of Arabia (the next movie in my instant queue, Doctor Zhivago, is another three and half hour David Lean film. Oy vey). If George Stevens (and his editor) had shaved like forty five minutes or so off the 201 minute running time, this could have been an “A-” film. As it stands, it’s full of scenes that drag on a couple minutes too long. It can be repetitive, and there are just simply a ton of moments that could have been excised and not lost any of the film’s magic. Regardless, it’s still a good movie even if its excess keeps it from greatness. If you enjoy older films, it’s easy to recommend. James Dean only has a credited role in three films (he had tiny parts in a couple of other films), and unlike say Marilyn Monroe, he is an American sex symbol/icon/film legend deserving of the title. He was just a raw, natural talent that was taken from us too soon and for fans of good acting, his performance is worth the price of admission alone.
Final Score: B