Director George Stevens’ 1956 film Giant is one of those grandiose soap operas that were popular back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but one which has not aged particularly well. Yes, it did, and still does, offer more than the similar epic, Gone With The Wind, but Giant still lacks heft, despite its immense length (200 minutes) and large subject matter (the rise of Texas as an economic powerhouse in the early 20th Century). Having said that, the film has no glaring bad points, just as it has no particular high points one might call great. This includes the hit and miss acting by the film’s trio: Elizabeth Taylor (excellent), Rock Hudson (yawn-inducing), and James Dean (better than the histrionics in Rebel Without A Cause but not as nuanced as in East Of Eden); as well as the technical aspects of the film, from the choice of Eastman Color over the more lush Technicolor, the use of a 1.66:1 versus a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, to the intangibles- solid, workmanlike direction by Stevens, florid, overblown scoring by the usually astute Dimitri Tiomkin, and alternatively predictable and spectacular cinematography from William C. Mellor. But, as with most films, the thing that dooms the film to mediocrity is the screenplay, written by Ivan Moffat and Fred Guiol, adapted from the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber.
The film follows the lives of Texas rancher Jordan (Bick) Benedict (Hudson) and his Maryland born wife Lesley (Taylor). They meet when he goes back east to buy a champion stud horse from her father. They marry in Washington, D.C. (offscreen), and arrive back at Benedict’s ranch in western Texas called Reata. Immediately, problems arise between Lesley and Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge, with the u sound pronounced as a short vowel), a unmarried butch bitch whose only redeeming quality seems to be her unconsummated lust for one of the ranch hands, Jett Rink (Dean), who loathes Bick, but lusts for Lesley. When Luz is killed, after sadistically trying to break the champion horse, her will gives a parcel of land to Jett, who refuses to sell it back to Bick. Eventually, he strikes oil on the property, and becomes richer than Bick, forming an oil company called Jetexas. Time passes quickly in the film, which is actually at its best in montages, vignettes, and passage of time moments, as well as its glimpses of the lives of the secondary and tertiary characters, rather than straight dramatic set pieces. We see the birth of the three Benedict children, Jordy (Dennis Hopper), his twin sister Judy (Fran Bennett), and their younger sister Luz (Carroll Baker), named after her dead aunt.
As the children grow up, Jordy becomes a doctor and ends up marrying a Mexican nurse of a local doctor, Judy marries a local ranch hand, and Luz is courted by the much older Jett, much to Lesley’s disapproval and Bick’s ignorance. It’s clear that Jett is projecting feelings on to Luz that he holds for her mother, but the young girl is oblivious to this. Meanwhile, Bick eventually sells out to Jett, and allows drilling on his land, too, and becomes even richer for it. Jett then builds an airport and invites all the wealthy folk in Texas to it, including the Benedicts. Jordy tries to punch him out after the racist Jett’s employees humiliate his Mexican wife Juana (Elsa Cardenas), but is restrained by Jett’s security men, and then he wallops Jordy, causing Bick to step in and threaten to punch the drunken Jett out. Instead, he looks at the pathetic little man and leaves, only destroying his liquor room. Then, at his gala, Jett passes out drunk. When he wakes, the still smitten Luz hears him rant about his love for her mother, and realizes she was just being used. Meanwhile, Jordy and Bick quarrel over Bick’s subtle racism, which he denies, pretending he was a champion of Juana against Jett’s overt bigotry. On their way back to Reata, Bick, Leslie, Luz, Juana and her son Jordan IV, try to eat at a local diner. They are initially refused service for Juana, until Bick steps in and announces who he is. The racist cook then turns his anger toward a small old Mexican man and his wife. Bick intercedes, and the two men fistfight, with Bick getting the worst of it. Later, at home. Lesley tells her husband that it was not until he stood up for his daughter-in-law and grandchild that he became her hero. Still, Bick laments that his grandson, who bears his name, looks more Mexican than white. The camera then scans in closely on the two babies the old couple is minding, and the film ends with eyes toward the future.
Giant is a soap opera, in both the best and worst senses of the term. At its worst it’s self-indulgent and melodramatic, not to mention a good hour or more too long. At its best one gets a real sense of who the characters are: a viewer genuinely admires the pre-Feminist feminism of Lesley, detests the macho ebullience of Bick, and is conflicted over the racist but appealing Jett. Of the minor characters, the best acted role belongs to Dennis Hopper. It’s a shame that he never really achieved all he could as an actor, settling, instead to become an icon rather than an artist. Of course, the film is most noted for being the last of James Dean’s three major films and one suspects that, had that not been the case, the film would have long faded out of public consciousness, for there simply is no depth to it. Yes, Stevens does serve up several indictments of Gringo racism towards Mexicans and, to a lesser extent, blacks, but it is done so heavy-handedly that even social liberals may overdose on the saccharine. John Sayles’ Lone Star, a film made four decades after this one, is a far better film, in every aspect, in its depictions of the pros and cons of Texas life.
The two disk DVD, by Warner Brothers, is a pretty good package. Disk Two has two hour long documentaries on the film, called Memories Of Giant and Return To Giant. Both are making of films. Both include interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, mostly minor players like the director’s son, George Stevens Jr., and actors like Jane Withers, Earl Holliman, and Carroll Baker, with archival footage of Hudson. There are several theatrical trailers for the film, a tv special of the film’s New York and Hollywood premieres, and the Gig Young tv show, Behind The Cameras, about life on the set. Disk One has the film, broken at its intermission, into two parts, the first of which is one side one, and the second on side two. There is also an Introduction to the film by George Stevens, Jr.; a series of interviews with other filmmakers on their thoughts about George Stevens, as a filmmaker; and then an audio commentary track by Stevens, Jr., film critic Stephen Farber, and the film’s screenwriter, Ivan Moffat. Of the three, this bland commentary only has moments of interest when Moffat, who was actually part of the film’s creation, speaks. Steven, Jr. seems to busy being in awe of his father’s work, and Farber just seems happy to be getting recognized as a film critic. Some good points that pop up in the commentary (at over three hours in length, even a few chimps would entertain a few times, eh?) are discussions of why Stevens abjured Cinemascope, so he could have height in his films, as well as width, and why the two Luz Benedicts seem to be obsessive over Jett Rink.
Giant is not a film that will stick long in one’s memory, and it is not a film of any real political nor historical import, despite the claims made by many of the people featured in the bonus features of the DVD. It’s a well made soap opera, a grand entertainment that has a few moments, in its sprawl, that stand out. In brief, it is that old saw: a good solid movie that one turns to when down, and in need of relief from reality. It will make a lousy, rainy afternoon a little bit more enjoyable. After all, rain does have its charms, even if little of the wet will quench the soul, much less mind.
This is a guest review by Dan Schneider on a well-known Texas film.