Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Big Country (1958)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Big Country (1958)

In William Wyler's spectacular widescreen, beautifully-photographed, Technicolored Western epic, based upon Donald Hamilton's originally serialized Saturday Evening Post magazine novel "Ambush at Blanco Canyon" that was published in 1958:

  • the film opened with a memorable Saul Bass credits sequence, and Jerome Moross' sweeping and robust thematic score
  • the arrival in the cattle town of San Rafael, TX of transplanted Maryland ex-sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) - a thoughtful, smart, and basically pacifist 'tenderfoot' who was there to claim his fiancee-bride Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) (an only child, who had met McKay back East when she was in school); instead, he became caught up in her father's civil war feud over water rights at an adjoining ranch known as "The Big Muddy" (where a vital water source was located) - owned but no longer operated by the Maragon family
  • various other characters were introduced: patriarchal cattle-baron landowner "The Major" Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), his main rancher-rival and reprobate Rufus Hannassey (Oscar-winning Burl Ives), Terrill's cocky and rough-hewn foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Rufus' no-good drunken son Buck (Chuck Connors), and Patricia's schoolteacher friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who had inherited "The Big Muddy" from her grandfather, but no longer operated the Maragon ranch
  • the cumulative scenes of the highly-disciplined McKay's taming of a wild bronco stallion named "Old Thunder" - to meet the challenge given to him by Terrill's foreman Steve Leech
  • a confrontational scene occurred over access rights to water at "The Big Muddy" between Rufus Hannassey and his rich rival enemy Major Henry Terrill, when Rufus burst into Terrill's house (during a gala party to celebrate Patricia's engagement), berated Terrill, and delivered a major ultimatum - as well as calling him a hypocrite for harrassing his wild clan of women and children: ("This is a mighty fine house, Major Terrill: a gentleman's house. Those are mighty fine clothes you are wearin'. Well, maybe you've got some of these folks fooled, but you ain't got me fooled, not by a damn sight! The Hannasseys know and admire a real gentleman when they see one, and they recognize a high tone skunk when they smell one. Now, I'm not here complainin' about twenty of your brave men who beat three of my boys 'til they couldn't stand. Maybe they had it comin'. Anyways, they're full-growed and can take their lickin's. And I'm not here complainin' because I know that you're tryin' to buy the Big Muddy to keep my cows from water. Though it galls me sore to see the granddaughter of a genuine gentleman like Glenn Maragon under this roof. I'll tell you why I'm here, Major Terrill! When you come a-ridin' roughshod over my land scarin' the kids and the women folks, when you invade my home, like you was the law or God Almighty, then I say to you, I've seen every kind of critter God ever made, and I ain't never seen a meaner, lower, more stinkin', yellow, hyprocrite than you! Now you can swallow up a lot of folks and make 'em like it, but you ain't swallowin' me. I'm stuck in your craw, Henry Terrill, and you can't spit me out! You hear me now! You rode into my place and beat my men for the last time and I give you warnin'. You set foot in Blanco Canyon once more and this country's gonna run red with blood 'til there ain't one of us left! Now I don't hold mine so precious, so if you want to start, here, start now! What's the matter? Can't you shoot a man a-facin' ya? I'll make it easy fer ya. Here's my back")
  • McKay made private efforts to intervene and bring peace between the Hannasseys and the McKays by offering to buy the Maragon ranch land from Julie Maragon (as a wedding present for Patricia) where "The Big Muddy" was located - to continue to keep the river free and accessible for both ranchers; Patricia separated and essentially broke up with McKay by the film's conclusion due to her disenchantment with his perceived cowardice and peace-making efforts
  • at the end of a marathon pre-dawn, memorable outdoor fist-fight ("not with horses or guns") without witnesses (sometimes filmed in long-shot) between non-violent McKay and the dislikeable Steve Leech, McKay ultimately questioned the futility of their fight when it ended in a draw: "Tell me Leech. What did we prove? Huh?"
  • the film concluded with Rufus Hannassey's planned ambush of Major Terrill in Blanco Canyon, by taking Julie Maragon hostage (not knowing that she had already sold her land to McKay); a gentlemen's duel (with dueling pistols) was instigated between Hannassey's hot-headed son Buck and McKay - with Rufus officiating; Buck fired early (and just grazed McKay's forehead) and was reprimanded by his father - ending with cowardly Buck's death by his own honorable father when Buck unfairly stole another man's gun and was about to kill the unarmed McKay
  • Rufus agonized over the death of his own disreputable son: "I warned you, you dirty little...I told ya! I told ya I'd do it. I told you, but you wouldn't believe me! Damn your soul, I told you!"
Gun Duel Face-Off Between McKay and Hannassey's No-Good Son Buck
  • another final stalking and deadly showdown occurred in Blanco Canyon between the two sole warlord protagonists: Terrill and Hannassey; it ended with both unyielding men squaring off against each other and killing each other with rifles - one lying on top of the other (filmed from a high-angle long shot)
  • the ending brought peace after a violent confrontation between the two families that eliminated the two old-men protagonists; McKay rode off with Julie to start their new life together

An Ultimatum Between Hannassey (Burl Ives) and Terrill (Charles Bickford) Regarding Big Muddy Water Rights

Pre-Dawn Fist-Fight Between James McKay (Gregory Peck) and Terrill's Foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston)

Final Stalking Scene in Blanco Canyon Between Terrill and Hannassey


Greatest Scenes: Intro | What Makes a Great Scene? | Scenes: Quiz
Scenes: Film Titles A - H | Scenes: Film Titles I - R | Scenes: Film Titles S - Z