Written by Edna Ferber, Fred Guiol, and Ivan Moffat
Directed by George Stevens
Giant is one of those legendary Hollywood movies. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same title, it easily could have ended in disaster. It ran way over budget, with much of the filming done in Marfa, Texas which was in the midst of a terrible drought. Within days of the completion of filming, James Dean, one of the stars, died in that famous car accident. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the film became such a legend.
Rock Hudson is Jordan “Bick” Benedict. He’s a Texas cattleman in the 1920’s who’s traveling the country looking for horses for his ranch when he happens upon Leslie Lynnton (portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor) riding a spirited stallion he intends to buy. Leslie sets her sights on Bick, who ends up going back to his Texas ranch with the horse and a wife.
Texas is quite different than the life Leslie had in Virginia, and Leslie is quite a different woman than has been seen before in Texas. The barrenness of the land as Bick drives his new bride to the ranch from the train station 50 miles away is stark. One wonders how they manage to eke a living out of this land, never mind become the baron that Bick is. Right from the start, Leslie must battle for her place in this world. Initially the battle to run the house falls between Leslie and Bick’s sister Luz (portrayed by Mercedes McCambridge). Leslie must also battle the prejudices of the area as she attempts to take care of the local migrant worker population. Even getting a doctor out to see an ill baby results in an argument as she fights to give them some decent health care despite the impoverished conditions they live in. She also tangles with her husband about exactly what a woman’s place is, as she has a brain in her head and isn’t afraid to use it. If Bick wanted a wife who would defer to him, he shouldn’t have married Leslie.
The land is changing. While Bick sticks to cattle, more and more are making their fortunes on black gold. This is where the character of Jett Rink (portrayed by James Dean) enters the picture. There’s a degree of rivalry between him and Bick that’s only intensified as the film progresses. Luz leaves Jett some land in her will, and he taps the land for oil, becoming instantly wealthy. He also has a great deal of affection for Leslie and while she is kind and attentive to him, she never takes it any further than that.
Bick and Leslie have three children who grow up on the land but are their own people. The son Bick sees as the natural one to fill his shoes in running the ranch has no interest at all in it. A grown-up Jordan Benedict III (portrayed by Dennis Hopper) wants to be a doctor, and even more to his father’s horror falls in love with a Mexican woman who is also a doctor. Judy Benedict (portrayed by Fran Bennett) and her husband Bob Dace (portrayed by Earl Holliman) are the ones who could run the ranch, but they want to have their own place rather than be tied to her parents. Finally there is Luz (portrayed by Carroll Baker) who finds the older Jett Rink quite intriguing and flirts with the idea of marrying him.
The story here is hard to pin down. There’s the underlying story of the discrimination against the Mexican population that’s accentuated that even marrying into one of the most powerful Texas families doesn’t stop it. Jordan must fight for his wife, something that doesn’t come as a surprise to Bick and Leslie. Leslie immediately accepted her daughter-in-law, but even she hesitated, knowing that the two of them (and any children they have) will have a hard road ahead of them. Bick actually grows fairly well through these events, casting aside old prejudices and looking at how people are treated through different eyes.
There’s the story of old wealth and status versus new wealth. Where the Benedicts are an old, revered family in Texas, Rink is regarded as nouveau riche and often treated as such. He must buy his acceptance into their world. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the need to be accepted by the old wealth that’s a thorn in his side.
Finally, it’s the story of a family and the different personalities. From the husband and wife who don’t always see eye-to-eye and must work on their marriage to the children that grow and have to carve out their own place in the world despite what their parents wanted for them, the story covers the period from the 1920’s to the 1950’s and foreshadows the changes that are about to take place socially.
The acting here is fantastic. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have such a natural chemistry together. As young as they are when Giant was filmed, it’s remarkable to watch them age through the film and carry themselves so well. Just the looks they share when Jordan comes home with his new bride shows the unspoken understanding between them and communicates it to the audience. Taylor conveys so much without uttering a word in so many scenes; her body language and her expressions tell a story in itself. Dean is great in his role too, although I have to say his performance in Rebel Without a Cause remains my favorite. The supporting cast is also great. It was hard for me to watch Hopper so young as I am used to his performances as he got older, but he does a great job as do they all. There’s not a weak actor or actress in the lot.
Filming on location added a lot to the picture. It’s hard to grasp the starkness and flatness of the land without being on the actual location. The audience transitions nicely with Leslie as she leaves her Virginia home by train with her new husband and opens the window shade to a dry, flat, monochrome landscape.
There’s an introduction to the film by George Stevens Jr., son of the Director who also worked on the film. It’s a good introduction which especially helps set the context of the film. It might not be evident what was so ground-breaking about Giant at the time, looking back all these years later. George Stevens Jr. helps set the context. The other special features are equally as good. There’s the usual commentary which is actually interesting & informative. The director, George Stevens, gets plenty of attention with his own featurette with interviews with the likes of Warren Beatty, Alan Pakula, Frank Capra and more. Several other featuretts focus on the filming and feature interviews with various members of the cast and crew. Elizabeth Taylor doesn’t appear but there’s audio of her being interviewed, and interviews Hudson gave about Giant before his death are edited in. Plenty is said about Dean. Although he was done filming when he died, many of the other actors and actresses were still working on the film and heard the news while screening the daily rushes. All of this is handles quite nicely and respectfully.
Although personally I don’t see Giant as a classic in the caliber of a Gone With the Wind, it’s still a fantastic film from Hollywood’s golden era. I think the lack of a focused story really left me wanting something more out of the film, even though it’s still excellent. I really want to read the book now. The production values and performances bolster everything as well, making it well worth watching. It’s something I would definitely consider adding to my personal DVD collection.
• Commentary with Film Critic Stephen Farber, Screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and George Stevens Jr.
• George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him
• Memories of Giant
• Return to Giant
• New York Premiere Telecast
• Hollywood Premiere
• Giant Stars Are Off to Texas
• Stills And Documents
Categories: Movie Reviews
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