Saturday 29 September 2012

1,001 Films: "Giant" (1956)

"It's big, all right," mutters Rock Hudson, of all people, in the opening moments of George Stevens' epic oilfield saga Giant. Assuming the role of Texan tycoon Bick Benedict, he's talking about his home state, but the actor could equally be defining the incipient size-queenery Hollywood had set about demonstrating in the final decade before the dismantling of the studio system: a redoubling, even tripling, of screen dimension, subject matter and running times designed to stave off the threat emerging from television with a concerted, colossal Bigness. Even the titles went large. 

In this adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, Hudson plays the cattle rancher and member of the Texan political elite who lords over his Mexican staff in a ten-gallon hat; Liz Taylor, twirling in taffeta and treating this as her own personal Gone With The Wind, is his outsider wife, whose East Coast forward-thinking initially sets her in conflict with the patriarchy; and James Dean, in his last role before prematurely buying the farm, is the self-improving ranchhand with the unlikely name of Jett Rink who inherits a plot of land from Hudson's late sis Mercedes McCambridge, strikes black gold, and goes on to become one of the mid-20th century's foremost tycoons. It's the American dream, only bigger.

Actually, there is an argument to be made that Stevens' film most closely aspires to being Shakespeare in the dust. We have the remote kingdom, the aging dynasty struggling to adjust to a new world - it's just that Giant, caught between the über-straight Fifties and the looser Sixties, doesn't quite know what to make of the latter as yet, which is why its more progressive tendencies appear so hesitant. Dean, the new face of Hollywood, is eventually stuck under bizarre old-man make-up, as his heir apparent Leonardo di Caprio would be in a run of biopics years later, and this must be the only movie in history to cast Dennis Hopper as a cast-iron square.

You sense Stevens trying to bring his usual perceptiveness to bear on the material - he gets a nicely relaxed mid-film interlude with Hudson and Taylor in bed (separate beds, obviously), sipping tea and mulling over recent events with an intimacy rarely observed in on-screen married couples up to that point - and the abiding white liberal neuroses (setting its fist-fights over anti-Mexican prejudice to "The Yellow Rose of Texas", for example) make an interesting, instructive counterpoint to what John Ford was doing in and around this very territory. 

Yet the material doesn't cut deep in the way Stevens' other Taylor collaboration A Place in the Sun did, because at heart Giant's interest resides in the structures of business rather than the doings of people. It wants us to be impressed by the hoopla that goes along with the opening of a hotel or airport, to feel sorry when Hudson hangs up on a call that could have earned him a billion dollars a year for fifty years, to give a damn either way when this patriarch destroys the presumably priceless contents of his nouveau riche rival's private wine cellar.

Truth is, Jett Rink and Bick Benedict don't linger in the mind the way the truly larger-than-life Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara do, as their methods and motives are forever dwarfed by the spaces these characters find themselves in and framed against (the skies, the oil derricks, the vast canvasses mounted on the walls of the Benedict family mansion); the bigger Giant gets, the less specific it's allowed to be, and the duller it becomes. Broad enough, at least, to serve as a digest of several other movies sprawling at the intersection of capitalism and family values, though you may just be better off with The Magnificent Ambersons (which has the advantage of pithiness, in whichever cut you see it), The Little Foxes (whose claws were sharper) or - much later - There Will Be Blood (which matched Stevens for scope, went further in its critique, and found the one performance Big enough to register on this scale).

Giant is available on DVD through Warner Bros.


  1. ["Assuming the role of self-made tycoon Bick Benedict, he's talking about his home state of Texas . . ."]

    Actually, Bick Benedict is not a self-made tycoon. He inherited his wealth from his father, who inherited the family wealth from Bick's grandfather. I'm sorry if I'm being a bit anal, but I can't help it.

    1. Thanks JJ - a lapse on my part. Have edited accordingly.