AFI Countdown Challenge #82: Giant

My original plan with this project was to watch and get write-ups for two to three movies a week.  Last week, there was only one.  That was for Platoon.  The next film on the list counting up was the 1956 movie Giant, and the only thing I knew about that going into the movie was it was James Dean’s last one.  He’d died before the movie was released, apparently because director George Stevens was a real stickler in the editing room.  So, why not watch that one and get the write-up going this week?

Simple answer there:  Giant is nearly three and a half hours long.  Between big grading assignments at work and family obligations, to say nothing of my regular Gabbing Geek self-imposed work load, I just plain did not have time to watch a three and a half hour movie over the weekend last weekend.

Well, I’ve seen it now, and I always start these with some kind of a personal anecdote, so let’s take a look at Giant.

Giant is, more than anything else, about Texas.  Everything is bigger in Texas, so the running time for a movie like this has to be bigger too.  That’s the only explanation I have for why this movie is three and a half hours long.  Normally with a movie that long, there’s a massive cast and an epic feel.  Giant doesn’t quite manage that.  It’s essentially the story of two people, maybe three depending on how you count James Dean’s character, and the life they live over a 25 year period.

The movie opens, after the credits play over cows at a watering hole, with one Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr (Rock Hudson) traveling to Maryland to buy a horse.  He meets a somewhat venom-tongued socialite named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and the two hit it off and get married, like, immediately.  Bick also buys the horse.

Look, I’ll be honest:  the sort of melodrama is not my cup of tea, so expect me to make fun of it a bit here and there as we go.

As it is, the movie deals first and foremost with the marriage between the upper class girl from Maryland and the upper class cattle rancher from Texas.  Apparently, there are some big cultural differences, as Leslie holds a more progressive view to life (up to a point by modern standards), not holding with the idea that women are not fit to talk politics or business, and there are some marital difficulties early on especially between how Bick and Leslie clash over that sort of thing.  Bick is a soft-spoken, traditional kind of guy, and his wife is an outspoken woman who demands her place at the table.  She’s the one who will go out and see to it that a poor Mexican woman’s baby gets some needed medical care from the white doctor treating Bick’s doomed sister Luz.  Why is Luz doomed?  She wasn’t pleased by Leslie being, well, Leslie, and tried to take it out on Leslie’s personal horse.  The horse was named War Winds.  You can guess what happens when you reap the war winds.

And that’s where things go a little weird.  Luz leaves a small plot of land to one Jett Rink (Dean).  Is Jett a common name in Texas?  I don’t know.  As it is, Bick doesn’t much like Jett, and the feeling is mutual.  Jett claims his ancestors were robbed by Bick’s when it came to buying up land, and that Bick’s ancestors were also robbing the local Mexicans and such, and that the Benedict’s giant cattle ranch is just a reflection of that.  Bick offers Jett twice the value of his small plot, but Jett declines and later strikes oil.

Now would be a good time to discuss casting.  Why?  Because I decided it was.  Dean is, well…different.  His acting is all twitchiness and mannerisms and the like to the more staid Hudson’s style.  Jett cannot literally sit still for a minute, always playing with something or casting glances all over.  It’s no small wonder Dean was such a sensation.  His acting was just different in so many ways from his older contemporaries.  Compare him to Hudson or even Taylor and you can see the difference.  Marlon Brando did similar little bits of acting business in his youth, and that comes across given the two were same acting school.  Taylor, as with A Place in the Sun (also directed by Stevens), lights up the screen in her own way, but Dean really steals the show.

And his character isn’t in the movie all that much in the grand scheme of things.  He’s an occasional thorn in the side of Bick, representing a new way of doing things what with his oil business going huge, but he’s not the only one as Bick and Leslie’s children likewise challenge him that way.  Leslie starts it, but their children are another story.  They have a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, and then another girl named for the late Luz.  Jordan Benedict III (who, as an adult is played by Dennis Hopper, and that really weirded me out) has no interest in running the ranch and wants to be a doctor, and then marries a Mexican woman.  Jordan’s twin Judy marries a simple guy and they want to be ranchers…but on a smaller place, not the big family spread.  And youngest daughter Luz II, well, she has her own thing going on.

So, what about Hudson?

Here’s the thing:  given what I know about Hudson’s death, I have a hard time taking him as seriously as I should.  Hudson’s real life was rather tragic, but it means I also don’t see him as he was on the big screen: the romantic leading man.  I found his soft-spoken ways bland next to Taylor and Dean, and that’s saying something.  Apparently, Hudson was given the choice of either Taylor or Grace Kelly (no relation) for his leading lading, and he opted for Taylor.  He made a good call, and he’s not exactly bad, he’s just not as good as the other two as far as I am concerned.  It’s a matter of personal opinion.  Then again, maybe he was supposed to be bland.

And it’s not as if Taylor’s Leslie doesn’t also have lessons to learn.  Bick’s uncle tells her early on that she’ll come to see the Reata ranch and Texas as home in 25 years.  Guess how much time passes during the course of the movie.

The movie ends with Bick finally doing something to address social change when he stands up to an abusive, racist diner owner who won’t serve his daughter-in-law and mixed race grandson, plus a family of Mexicans who wandered in looking for a meal.  Bick gets his ass kicked, but Leslie finally sees him as a hero.

And as he recuperates from his lumps, Bick looks over at his two grandchildren:  Jordan III’s aforementioned son, and Judy’s blonde haired, blue eyed boy, both toddlers about the same age.  Jett’s life has been revealed to be something of a sad fraud in its own way, and the message seems to be that building a strong family is more important than wealth and tradition.  Because the two managed to more or less do that, despite numerous bumps along the way (was Bick more upset his son was a doctor or married to a Mexican woman?), Leslie can finally say she can call the Reata home and Bick can acknowledge his own family in ways he never did before.  He may regret verbally his grandson carrying his name, Jordan IV, looks nothing like him, but he will stand up for his family in a way he never would have conceived of when Leslie first moved to Texas.  Texas has changed.  Bick has changed.  Leslie has changed.  Change can be good.

NEXT UP:  After the headiness that was Giant, we need to skip back to the silent movie era for some laughs with 1936’s Modern Times, the first film we’ll be looking at featuring the great comedian Charlie Chaplin.

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