Sixty years later, George Stevens’s intimate epic Giant still seems like a wondrous anomaly: sweeping saga of American prosperity that reveals its racist underbelly; glorious star vehicle that upends rigid gender roles; modern western that questions the validity of frontier land ownership.
Stevens went against the 1950s shift to widescreen, shooting the grandeur of West Texas cattle country in a tightly framed 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Even the whopping running time (201 minutes) didn’t keep Giant from being a commercial success. Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat adapted Edna Ferber’s sprawling, multigenerational novel into an engrossing narrative of accumulated moments, especially the way headstrong Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) adjusts to life as a wealthy rancher’s wife.
Stevens captures the dusty expanse, but he also reveals his characters during charged encounters. And he mirrors the pivotal scenes, such as the high-profile fistfights between cattle baron Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson) and ranch hand turned tycoon Jett Rink (James Dean).
Key to Giant‘s enduring appeal is the meshing of outsize stars with Ferber’s characters: Closeted sex symbol Hudson’s towering Bick fills the big boots of his ranching family while struggling with the demands of traditional masculine authority. The taboo-breaking Taylor is the seductive, whip-smart Leslie, an assured reformer who views the injustices visited upon the ranch’s Mexican workers with maternal concern.
And then there’s Dean’s most mannered, complex performance: Jett is at once transparent and enigmatic, hardening with age while the other characters mature. The actor’s death — a year before release — adds a keen poignancy to the character’s lost potential.
Directed by George Stevens
Opens September 30, Film Forum