The DVD Report #572

The Big Country, William Wyler’s mammoth 1958 film, has been newly remastered in HD, the new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber correcting the horizontal stretching of the previous 2011 Blu-ray release from MGM. That stretching was caused by the remastering of the original Technirama negative as though the film were shot in Cinemascope, a different widescreen process requiring a different digital conversion.

Western purists disliked Wyler’s film because it was not a traditional western, but more of an anti-western like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon or Wyler’s own Friendly Persuasion. The hero here is not a macho cowboy but a peace-loving dude from back East, played by Gregory Peck in his first western since 1950’s The Gunfighter. The film was so long in post-production, however, that Peck’s subsequent western, The Bravados was released first.

Peck and Wyler had been wanting to make another film together since the success of 1953’s Roman Holiday. Peck brought Wyler the story, and the two worked as co-producers, but had a falling out over Wyler’s refusal to reshoot a scene in which Peck felt he did not give his best performance. Peck walked off the set, and when he returned, the two did not speak during the remainder of the shoot. They didn’t speak again until Wyler’s AFI tribute in 1976, which was hosted by Peck.

The 166-minute film is beautifully photographed by Fritz Planer (The Nun’s Story), scored by Jerome Moross (The Cardinal) and acted by Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, and Alfonso Bedoya.

Wyler’s sleight-of-hand direction hides four things most audiences don’t catch:

  1. The location of the big country is never mentioned. Most people think it’s Texas, but the film’s exteriors were shot in Stockton, California.
  2. The life-long enmity between Burl Ives and Charles Bickford is never explained.
  3. Why Bickford’s daughter, Carroll Baker, left home and how she met fiancée Gregory Peck is never explained.
  4. Baker’s disappearance halfway through the film is neither mentioned nor explained. It was due to the actress’s pregnancy causing her to leave the production once it was noticeable.

Burl Ives is thought to have won his supporting Oscar for The Big Country instead of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because MGM listed him as lead for the latter whereas United Artists listed him in support for the former. That may be, but his Big Daddy on the range in The Big Country is just as thrilling as his Big Daddy on the plantation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Whereas as the old Blu-ray offered no extras, the Kino Lorber is loaded with them, not the least of which is Catherine Wyler’s 1986 documentary Directed by William Wyler featuring interviews with legendary Wyler stars, Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Bette Davis (Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver), Ralph Richardson (The Heiress), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), Charlton Heston (The Big Country, Ben-Hur), Samantha Eggar and Terence Stamp (The Collector), and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl).

An unparalleled gem in MGM’s catalogue of musicals, Stanley Donnen’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has finally arrived on Blu-ray thanks to Warner Archive’s long overdue remastering. Taken from a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet (The Devil and Daniel Webster), Benet’s The Sobbin’ Women was itself inspired by the Roman myth, The Rape of the Sabine Women, “rape” meaning “abduction” or “kidnapping” in Latin rather than sexual assault. Despite its origins, it’s all in good fun.

Jane Powell has never been better than as the young bride who is shocked to find her husband (Howard Keel) has six brothers she is expected to keep house for, but she adapts quickly, teaching the boys how to dance and court a girl, among other things. Keel is equally fine as the rancher she marries, as are Jeff Richards, Matt Mattox, Marc Platt, Jacques D’Amboise, Tommy Rall, and Russ Tamblyn as the brothers. All the songs in the score are magical but with a cast of dancers (Mattox, Platt, D’Amboise, Rall) and a tumbler (Tamblyn), the most memorable are those in which dancing is a primary ingredient, most especially the barn dance set piece.

Although the brides get top billing in the film’s title, six of them don’t become brides until the end of the film. In fact, they have very little to do, having met the boys briefly in town and at the barn dance, until they are kidnapped and held captive through the long winter, all of them falling slowly in love.

The film is shown in two simultaneously filmed versions, the first in Cinemascope and the second in flat screen made for theatres that hadn’t yet been equipped to play Cinemascope films.

Claude Berri is best remembered for his back-to-back 1987 films, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, but just as enjoyable is his first film Two of Us.

Cohen Film Collection has released a beautifully restored 50th anniversary edition of the 1967 film (1968 in the U.S.) about an 8-year-old Jewish boy in 1943 occupied France sent to the country to live with the parents of a family friend, keeping his Jewishness hidden from the elderly anti-Semitic man (Michel Simon) caring for him.

The film is autobiographical. The kid in the film (Alain Cohen) is playing Berri as a child. He and Simon, who he calls Grampa, bond immediately despite their cultural and generational differences. For Simon (Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante), playing his first starring role in years, the film was a major comeback. It won him Best Actor at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival.

This week’s new releases include Love, Simon and Loveless.

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