During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
As the saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas”, and whoever first uttered that phrase must have been referring specifically to 1956’s “Giant”, a 200+ minute historical drama about a fictional Texas family with over a half-million acres of land and all the problems that come with being wealthy and white in the 20th century. Shot and acted beautifully, “Giant” attempts to be a compelling Western following the lives of Leslie Lynton (Elizabeth Taylor) as she begins married life on the ranch of rich Texan Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and on through until the couple welcome their grandchildren into the world. Despite its quality, this script left me bored.
Of all the films we have watched thus far, the closest comparison is “Cimarron”. Both “Cimarron” and “Giant” are based on books of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. Like “Cimarron”, “Giant” is an epic portrayal of a family over several decades in a place (the American West in the 1900s) undergoing major social and cultural changes. Both films also have female characters who attempt to break up the patriarchy and assert themselves as coequals to the men in the story and they both touch upon the subject of racism.
While it took research to realize that both films shared a similar origin, in comparing a film I liked (“Cimarron”) with a film that I found to be quite dull (this one), the reasons for one’s success over the others are clear. “Giant” suffers in its character arcs, devotes less time to the agency of its female lead, and never felt like it was about anything or had something to say. The similarly epic “Cimarron” also had this issue, but the narrative was better anchored by the character arc and subsequent focus on its female lead as she made her way in a world independent of her absent husband.
As aimless as it was, “Giant” is not without its highlights. As I mentioned before, the film was shot and acted beautifully. Early on, we meet Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie in a verdant, green Maryland as she is wooed by Rock Hudson’s looks and the wealth of his character Bick Benedict. When the movie flashes forward to her arrival in Texas and at his ranch house, we see a vast, flat desert wasteland. It is never a question that Bick is rich, but the imagery drives home the idea that Texas is still largely a blank page to be written upon.
The story seems to bounce back-and-forth between “fish out of water” and female empowerment until it skips a few years ahead and resolves either plot in the interim. In general, I do not mind these kinds of films that are epic in the years they cover rather than scope of the journey, but the pacing never made sense and I felt disoriented by the movie’s frequent, unannounced time jumps. They do a great job with hair and makeup to age the leads, but other characters, such as the family uncle who lives on the ranch with them, appear to remain the same age for many years.
While the plot fought to put us all to sleep, the acting did just the opposite. Rock Hudson gives a powerful performance and has the clearest arc of the entire cast. Early on, he is racist to the point of ignoring a sick child of a Mexican-American family that works on his ranch until his wife forces the issue. Toward the end of the film, in an intense diner fight scene, he defends the right of a Mexican family to eat there because his son married to a Mexican woman and he now has a Mexican daughter-in-law and a half-Mexican grandson. It’s not much of an arc since he still refers to his grandson by a racist term, but the parts of “Giant” that deal with these topics are easily the film’s highlights.
Rock Hudson was also ridiculously handsome in this movie. I am just saying.
Elizabeth Taylor also turned in a fantastic performance, though her character seemed to matter less and less as the movie progressed. Early on, she stages a sit-in because she wants to be allowed to talk politics with the menfolk. It’s the first outward sign of her progressive bent and another contribution to the film’s overall theme of progress and change in the American West. By the end of the movie, she is still just a wife and a mother, roles women typically play, and never arises to some additional prominence like Sabra in “Cimarron” who becomes the first female congresswoman from the state of Oklahoma.
Finally, we arrive at James Dean in his last role. Dean would die before the release of “Giant”. In the movie, he plays Jett Rink, a hired hand on Benedict’s ranch who falls in unrequited love with Leslie. He and Bick do not get along, but Bick’s sister (who dies early in the film from a horseback riding accident) leaves him a piece of the family land in her will. Jett tries to get Leslie’s attention, but, like Leslie, the film wastes little time on their relationship. Jett eventually strikes oil on the land and quickly becomes richer than the Benedicts and becomes a famous Texan oil tycoon.
It’s a shame the script failed Dean as Jett or that he spends so much of the movie mentioned but not seen. Jett never recovers from his love of Leslie and he carries that burden throughout the film. He attempts to court Leslie and Bick’s daughter who is much younger than him, but she gently turns him down. Dean’s portrayal of the embittered but wealthy man is spot-on and a great departure from the other two roles we have seen him in as a moody teen. In the movie’s final scenes featuring Jett, as he is surrounded by the opulence and triumph of his wealth, he sours the scene with his alcoholism and despair. In truth, I couldn’t take my eyes off the character anytime he was on screen, and if he had been a bigger focus of the film, the plot would have benefited.
There was a strangeness to seeing James Dean play a character older than he would ever be or watching him for the third and final time in a movie. He has survived on as a pop culture icon, but in seeing the full canon of his film work, I have a much greater understanding of what was lost. Though a lesser part, his turn at Jett Rink in “Giant” proves that he was a talented young actor with unseen potential and secures the tragedy of his early death.
As a follow-up to “Rebel Without A Cause”, I should also mention that both Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper make appearances. The former plays the sick Mexican child who lives on to make an appearance at a Christmas party, utter only a couple lines, and get shipped off to World War II to die off screen. The latter plays Bick Benedict’s son, the same son who would marry a Mexican woman. It was a treat seeing Dennis Hopper play a much more prominent role. Unlike his later movies, in “Giant”, he played a far less opposing character though his intensity is evident in just his second film credit.
It is a shame that there was so much to be enjoyed about “Giant” when the overall film left me grateful it was over. Unlike “Cimarron”, which benefited from the scope of time it covered, “Giant” would have benefited from being a smaller film. The movie does convey the evolution of Texas over the period of history it covers, but with all the grace of reading the cliff notes and none of the deeper introspection I wanted. “Giant” took a giant leap through Texas history and stumbled.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.
2 responses to “WB Top 100: Giant (1956)”
Very well-written blog about an epic classic film. Couldn’t disagree with you more about its boredom inducing qualities. The film’s length adds to its sweep and grandeur. Acting talent of principle and supporting characters is stellar. While the film’s treatment of racism isn’t extensive, its handling of the topic is excellent and ground-breaking for the time. Catch my Queen of the Lot blog at: maxmcmanus.com.
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Thank you for the kind words!