I've been to Texas once...and despite spending a week doing a lot of driving I only saw a tiny fraction of the state. What I remember about the place however was how it seemed the same as many other places in the United States but also very different. I guess it's not called the Lonestar State for nothing.
My preconceptions of the state came not just from the TV series "Dallas" but also from a film I saw when I was a teenager called "Giant". Filmed in 1955, "Giant" is perfectly named - it's a long film (nearly three and a half hours) with a big story about a big family in a big state. The film is based on Edna Ferber's equally large novel of the same name and in the hands of legendary director George Stevens became a very special film.
"Giant" is also famous because it marks the final onscreen appearance of James Dean, who died in a car crash just after he completed filming. The genre was a step away from the teenage films Dean had made his name in - instead "Giant" is classic 1950s melodrama with a western twist.
Jordan "Bick" Benedict, a rancher from western Texas, heads to Maryland to purchase a stud horse. When there he meets Leslie Lynnton, a local socialite. The pair fall in love and marry, returning to the family ranch in Texas called Reata. Leslie's arrival causes friction with Bick's sister Luz, who feels her position in the family is undermined.
A ranch hand at Reata, Jett Rink, worships Leslie from afar and dreams of somehow making a fortune and escaping Texas.
The film covers a period of 30 years, and while it remains a family saga at heart it also considers issues such as technological advances and change, as well as racism in Texas at the time.
I've seen "Giant" several times over the years and it's hard to get away from the fact that for all the wonderfully framed camera shots which capture the heat, dust and tumbleweed of Texas, the film is overshadowed by an extraordinary performance from James Dean. Dean is quite simply irresistibly photogenic, however his acting style - which I agree is a matter of taste for some - is so clever he can steal a scene even when he has nothing to say. Jett Rink, his character, is at times socially awkward, taciturn and staggeringly arrogant. In the wrong hands Rink wouldn't be sympathetic to an audience at all but Dean's ability to capture the character's vulnerability ensures even when he is behaving at his obnoxious worst, the audience is on side.
Rock Hudson is perfectly cast as Rink's nemesis, Bick Benedict. He looks wonderful but convinces as a man who begins the film with an air of certainty about where he has come from and how his life will proceed, convinced that the fact he took over his father's ranch means his son will want to do the same. As time passes and things don't seem so cut and dried, Hudson captures the confusion and sense of loss his character feels perfectly.
Hudson has marvellous on-screen chemistry with Elizabeth Taylor who plays his wife Leslie. Taylor is a better actor than Hudson however and she is wonderfully feisty in the role but also conveys a compassionate side which is sorely lacking in the Texan characters. Taylor looks absolutely amazing in the film too, with her luminescent beauty quite literally setting the screen alight.
The three main characters have to age 30 years over the course of the film and while Dean rises to the challenge and Hudson looks passingly convincing as a middle aged man, Taylor does not, with the make up department seemingly deciding that making her hair increasingly grey would do the trick. It's a shame because it does detract a little from Taylor's performance and isn't really her fault.
The film has a large ensemble support cast and features a gauche Dennis Hopper as Bick's heir along with Sal Mineo and Carroll Baker in supporting roles. Mineo is criminally underused, but a couple of beautifully photographed close-ups of him stay in the mind long after the film has ended. Baker, in her first major movie role, is effective in her role as Bick and Leslie's youngest daughter Luz II, being both charming and cheeky.
Chill Wills is probably the standout supporting performer, playing Bick's Uncle Bawley. Wills was a Texas native and his accent, demeanour and charm are genuine throughout exuding a warmth that touches the audience. Mercedes McCambridge is fantastic too as Luz, quietly revealing her sense of rage and insecurity over her place at Reata with the arrival of Leslie. Luz is an unsentimental woman and McCambridge conveys this, along with a quiet malevolence brilliantly in an understated performance.
Stevens turns the landscape of Texas into a star performer too. His photography magnificently captures the relentless heat, with an inspired scene which features a car driving into the distance with what seems like a never ending trail of dust following behind it. The vastness of the state is also shown in scenes which are filled with what seems like thousands of bulls locking horns as they are rounded up. Stevens used a three sided mock up for the Reata ranchhouse, which is a vast gothic monument which seemingly sits in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately the mock up isn't very convincing and you can easily tell which scenes were shot on location and those interior Reata shots are obviously done on a soundstage.
"Giant" is a brilliant film in my opinion, but for all its brilliance has some flaws too. For starters it's too long - and while the story is a big one the narrative gets a little bloated in places and with a little judicious editing, director George Stevens could have cut it to under 3 hours for a better flow of the narrative.
Aside from the pacing the social issues addressed are done so in a very clumsy manner with racism amongst white Texans towards Mexican people handled in a simplistic and dare I say it, patronising way. Bick and Leslie's Mexican daughter-in-law barely speaks in the film, being portrayed as a poor, put upon woman with the suggestion being she can only fight back against racism with the help of her white husband and his family. Very few of the Mexican characters are given more than a few lines in the film, so while the anti-racist sentiment is a good one, there's still a sense the Mexicans somehow aren't as important in the film.
~~DVD Presentation & Extras~~
The deluxe edition features 2 DVDs with the film spread out over two sides of the first disc.
The aspect ratio is 1.66:1 which leads to letterboxing on all sides of the screen, which is a bit of a pity as it does cut the screen size considerably when you view, thereby reducing the sense of vastness you get from seeing "Giant" on a big screen. You can also view it as 4x3.
The sound quality is 2.0 Dolby Surround with some extras in 1.0 mono sound. I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the sound on the DVD and had to really crank up the volume to hear some of the dialogue in places. There are English subtitles.
The extras are excellent and really give a feel for what filming was like, especially for the people who lived in the Texas town of Marfa which was used for the location shots. Several are interviewed, including some who appeared as extras in the film, along with interviews from several cast members in two documentaries on disc two, "Memories of Giant" and "Return to Giant". My only real gripe is the lack of any comments from Elizabeth Taylor on the shooting process which is a shame as they do feature archive footage of Rock Hudson reminiscing about the film.
There's a positively prehistoric television show recording the New York premiere of the film, hosted by Chill Wills which has dated incredibly badly. It's in black and white and the picture quality sucks but it is worth watching to see actors acting like luvvies with each other on the red carpet and Wills being incredibly patronising to a disabled young boy with muscular dystrophy, referring to him as a "tyke on wheels" - ah the good old days - not.
The Hollywood premiere is featured in more slickly produced newsreel footage and when you compare it with the televised New York premiere you can see why Hollywood viewed TV as the poor relation to cinema for so long.
On the flipside of disc one there is also a documentary called "George Stevens: Filmakers Who Knew Him" which gives some insight into the man behind the camera but it's not as interesting as the documentaries on the film "Giant" itself.
For all the sense of soap opera you get when watching "Giant" - perhaps brought on from watching too many episodes of "Dallas" over the years - the film has stood the test of time very well. Culturally it'll probably never go away due to the fact it was James Dean's final role - and arguably his finest onscreen performance.
It isn't perfect but the criticisms are, I suppose, fairly minor. It's very much a film of the 1950s, with a lush sheen so popular at the time in colour melodramas. It lacks some of the more subtle comments evident in Douglas Sirk's films being made at the same time but you could argue that's because Stevens' direction is more upfront and he didn't feel the need to use strong imagery to get a point - snarky or otherwise - across.
The final scenes are a bit of a let down - especially after devoting over 3 hours of your time to the film - and there's a sense that perhaps Stevens ran out of steam and didn't quite know how to get his point across. This leaves the audience with a final shot which is a bit of a damp squib.
I can forgive Stevens this however because so much of what goes before is so good. Dean steals the show but it has to be said Taylor gives him a run for his money and is the actor least likely to be upstaged by him.
If you have an evening free and fancy a little escapism then I highly recommend "Giant" - heck even if you don't care for melodrama it's worth watching if only for Jimmy Dean.