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Giant (1956)

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Score: 10/10

Genre: Drama Running Time: 3 hrs. 21 min.

Release Date: November 24th, 1956 MPAA Rating: G

Director: George Stevens Actors: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor

J

ordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels from Texas to Ardmore, Maryland to buy a stud horse named War Winds. There he meets Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), a naturally seductive socialite who Jordan can’t get out of his mind. She instantly falls in love, though his ownership of a 595,000-acre farm is mighty influential. She prods him for information on his family life, teasing him about patriotism, which draws him in further – for what is ultimately a mere two-day conquest. In short time, they’re married in Washington and honeymooning on the Texas & Western train, bound for Bick’s home at the Benedict Reata ranch.

At her new enormous Texas estate, Leslie is surprised to learn that the proud cattle baron and his no-nonsense, permanently disapproving sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) don’t fuss over the numerous Mexican servants – a stark contrast to the graciousness she’s accustomed to showing hired help. Her closest neighbor is 50 miles away and it’s obvious she doesn’t fit in well with the tougher, resilient denizens and the harsher desert environment. But she’s determined to prove herself a capable equal and straighten out the unwelcoming, insensitive, bitterly competitive attitude of her new sister-in-law.

When the inconsolable Luz rides War Winds with the intent of reinforcing her place as the household matriarch, she’s thrown and killed. As a dying sentiment, she bequeaths lowly ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) a small plot of nearby land, which he refuses to sell to Benedict. Instead, he fashions it into “Little Reata,” half to spite the abundant family and partly because Luz had always instilled in him the notion that land is the only thing more valuable than money. He’s a troublemaking worker with dreams of getting away from farm labor while despising the Benedicts for their extreme wealth and arrogance. As the affluence in Texas shifts with oil strikes and World War II, Leslie and Bick dabble with marital discontent, tiring of each other’s stubbornness and set ways and disputing the careers of their children – primarily concerning son Jordy (Dennis Hopper), who is anxious to become a doctor but expected to run Reata.

A distinct racism exists between the upper class and the Mexican workers, as well as a time-honored sexism between the men, who talk politics and business (and frown at the migratory mess of immigration, despite Leslie’s reference to the thieving of Texas from Mexico in the first place), while the women are relegated to coffee and beauty rest. Jordan just wants her to behave like a woman, excusing herself from masculine conversations. “That fine mind of yours gets pretty repulsive at times,” states Bick, chauvinistically, although he is gradually converted by Leslie’s uncommon intelligence and righteous persuasion. His perennial familial traditions of manly possession and governing (over property and people alike) are humbled over time as she corrects his old-fashioned thinking. This theme ties into the redistribution of riches and the unchanging resentment, especially as Rink rises to fortune. Later, Bick discovers the evils of racism for himself, no longer an attitude he can accept from a distance – first when his son marries the Hispanic Juana, and again when he must defend with his fists a newfound position in the middle of societal adjustment.

Amongst an inspired cast of Hollywood heavies, including the stern Hudson and captivating Taylor, James Dean’s entertaining performance appears the most effortless, full of casual nuances and distracted deliveries, fitting into the role with a convincing ease. His unstrained authenticity is remarkable, made more amusing when it conceals intellect and a ferocious ambition. In a twist to his deserving fortuitousness, Jett’s unassuming origins can’t curtail his corruption, spinning his behavior into self-destructive territory – a conversion that also allows the actor to indulge in exaggerated deviousness.

Like the sprawling epic that it is, “Giant” spans a great deal of time, following multiple generations of the Benedict family as based on the celebrated novel by Edna Ferber. The transitions are smooth and never distracting, quickly switching from pregnancy to the birth of twins, then to a third child, to teenaged children, and finally to those children having kids of their own. Offspring rapidly take center stage during the second half, demonstrating the full effect of aging and parenting, the unpredictability of life, succession and loyalty, tradition and rebellion, and inevitable change – for a house, a family, and a country.

– Mike Massie

 



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