Historically, Giant represents a genre from a bygone era that won't be duplicated and marks the last film of icon James Dean, who was killed a couple days after completing his scenes. Whenever a studio creates a loaded special edition DVD some forty years after a movie was first released, it's certain to inflate the film's true status and sentimentally evaluate the director and the actors. That's exactly what you'll get with the new DVD release of George Stevens' Giant, which Warner Brothers spins as their equivalent to Gone with the Wind. Granted the film is big and chronicles much of the spirit of Texas, but comparisons to David O. Selznick's classic are subject to automatic double takes. Giant is a huge production, but remains forever transfixed to the fifties (like many other Stevens' projects) and can now be looked at as the inspiration for the television mini-series, with its cardboard characters chosen solely for symbolic purposes.
The only character that gets decent development in Steven's sprawling epic is Texas itself, and the expansive dusty plains of west Texas and their big blue skies form the most memorable images from the film. Who can forget Leslie's (Elizabeth Taylor) opening daylight view of her new windblown home some fifty miles from the nearest cup of coffee—its barren dryness a complete contrast with the lush greenery of her native Maryland farm. The boom shots of the vehicle barreling along its uncharted road toward the Reata Ranch remain striking, and the first view of the huge isolated two story Victorian mansion a symbolic surprise. More realistic would have been an expansive ranch style spread, but this film is about Texas mentality—its independent nature and determination to make its own mark.
In that sense, James Dean's casting symbolizes the intended spirit of Giant. Surrounded by a large cast and crew fashioned from Hollywood, Dean represents the lone coyote that comes from the Brando mold of method acting. The location shooting in rural Marfa, Texas helped Dean prepare since he was able to get to know the locals and learn some rope tricks and mannerisms. Without much to do in the script, Dean still incorporates a Texas style stance, look, and walk into his character and uses a rope during silent periods to transform his secondary role of cowhand/oil maverick Jett Rink into the film's most memorable part. Dean comes across far more effectively as the younger man, as the older version gets little to do outside of staggering and looking bleary eyed from perpetual drinking binges, but his earlier scenes and oil soaked discovery moments indelibly record Stevens' production into film history.
Based on Edna Ferber's controversial best-selling novel, which was widely disliked by Texans, Stevens transforms the story of cattle rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) into a film that most Texans took to heart. Chronicling two generations of Texans beginning in the 1920's, the film clearly preaches for women's liberation and against racial discrimination, and all its major plot points are signaled well in advance to give "sophisticated" audiences an "I knew it" experience. This only makes the 201-minute film seem longer, especially slowing in the latter stages with the gathering of Texas' wealthiest and most politically powerful at Jett's hotel gala.
Stevens loves classic contrasts. Nearly everything has its blatantly symbolic double: Maryland farm vs. Reata ranch, cattle rancher Bick vs. ranch hand/oil maverick Jett, liberated Leslie vs. traditionalist Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge), Texas Thanksgiving vs. Maryland Thanksgiving, Anglo Texans vs. Mexicans, Bick's dreams for his children vs. Leslie's dreams, Jordan Benedict (Dennis Hopper) vs. father Bick and both sisters, etc. The parallels and contrasts are so transparent that every new character automatically has us looking for its match, since Stevens stylistically relies on this device to substitute for character development. It makes for an entertaining watch, eschewing profundity for easily perceived lessons against prejudice and social injustice, most notably on the behalf of Mexican Americans. Bick's gradual transformation is seen only through the broad strokes of fistfights, and his literal landing at the bottom the salad bar of Sarge's cafe to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas" adds the exclamation point.
Another favorite Stevens' staple requires applying aging makeup to his lead actors, and Giant does this to great effect to two of its three main characters. Both Hudson and Taylor age effectively from the facial makeup and streaks of gray hair while Taylor shows off her notable acting talent to an even better degree. Not only does the 23-year old actress look like a middle aged Texas matron during the second reel, but she moves like one and takes on the entire body language of a mature woman. Although Dean's performance is the one most remembered, Taylor's work here remains the most nuanced of the three over the entire body of the film.
A clunky reminder of the fifties, Giant remains an entertaining film for many of its small moments. Known as a serious filmmaker, especially after chronicling the conditions of the German concentration camps after their liberation, Stevens retains a sense of light-hearted humor and humanity throughout—the crying twins at Thanksgiving over their pet turkey, one small example. Such moments keep the viewer glued while Stevens paints his broad canvas of Texas that will live on in film history for a variety of reasons. It's no Gone with the Wind in epic proportions nor does it possess the relative subtlety of Lone Star when dealing with Texas racism, but its trio of lead actors belong in another trilogy of films that capture the spirit of the Lone Star state that includes The Big Country and The Alamo. Warner Brothers' special edition DVD provides a definitive release that lovingly preserves the film and strives mightily to thrust it beyond fond memories. The hyperbole can be forgiven such a worthy film with its noble intentions.
Reposted from Old School Reviews
A member of the Online Film Critics Society (featured on Rotten Tomatoes) John Nesbit writes curriculum materials professionally for a computer company in the Phoenix area, but reviews media for enjoyment. Writing technical materials pays the bills, but he would rather be hanging around the Camelview 5 and writing critiques of the latest non-mainstream films to arrive in town.