October 22, 2013


Giant (1956) is for some reason my favorite family epic. I'm no Texan, yet Giant makes me drink the Lone Star State-brand Kool-Aid every time. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, it's about a wealthy Texas ranch family and spans a quarter-of-a-century, from about 1920 to about 1945. Rock Hudson, as the dashing cattle rancher Bick Benedict, falls in love with a beautiful raven-haired Virginia girl named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) when he visits her family's farm to purchase a horse.

He takes both her and the horse back to Texas to his massive ranch, Reata (there's a famous dinner scene full of double entendres about the size of the ranch), and there she becomes part of the Texas cult herself, but never at the cost of her own strong-willed identity. (There's a great scene where the fiery, confident Liz Taylor scolds the men for trying to exclude her from their political discussion.) You'll fall prey to the cult too if you watch Giant, only you won't care by the time it's over.

Giant has its tender and touching and sad moments--the fate of Bick's Tomboy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), the plight of the Mexican villagers that burdens Leslie Benedict's heart, especially when her husband and his people seem unwilling to acknowledge it, the puppy love between the young adult Benedict children and their respective beaus--but never does Giant sink into histrionics. It sinks into pro-Texas propaganda, to be sure, but it also manages to portray the subtle evils of racism, the hollowed-out fruits of the American dream drenched in oil, and the strange, beautiful resilience that some people (like the Benedicts) manage, while others around them self-destruct--like Jett Rink (James Dean, who steals the film, and who died before it was released), the ranch hand who inherits a small piece of land, strikes it rich with oil wells, then falls apart after becoming a zillionaire.

Director George Stevens turns Giant into the anti-Gone With the Wind epic. He doesn't bash you over the head with profundity. He smartly lets the profundity linger in the background. On the surface, Giant is a safe movie, lauding the glories of American life and the progress enabled by fossil fuels. But James Dean's character represents such a descent into desperation because of his wealth, that you can hardly call Giant a cheerleader for oil. (He's also been in love with Leslie from afar for like 25 years. That kind of unfulfilled devotion begins to wear at a body.)

If the movie lets anyone off too easy, it's possibly Bick, except he gets his face smashed by a big burly restaurant owner at the end, and because he's finally standing up to the anti-Mexican sentiment he's ignored for so long. It's both Bick's come-uppance and his redemption: he stands up for his Mexican daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandson, and finally, as Leslie tells it, "becomes her hero." It's not the money or the vast estate or the impressive private jet, but the principles, that are rewarded.

Giant covers a lot of ground, but it's not the grand scope of the film but the breezy, laid-back style that I find mesmerizing: Stevens truly produces a kind of mythic Texas tale. It's hard to think of many movies that are able to embody a specific place with such authenticity. Screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat. With Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Fran Bennett, Earl Holliman, Elsa Cardenas, Paul Fix, Judith Evelyn, Rod Taylor, Carolyn Craig, and a young Sal Mineo. 201 minutes. ½

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