Should James Cameron require any suggestions on how to structure a family saga featuring exclusion, rebellion, adolescence, revenge and racism without relying on repetitive action beats he could do worse than check out this towering epic. There’s a seamlessness to the screenplay that allows the director to move quickly along, drama and conflict that initially tear a family apart in the end bringing it back together.
The story charts the romance of Texan rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) to socialite Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), their marital conflict as she exerts her personality in a male-dominated world, her battle with Bick’s older sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) for control of the household, and the infatuation of ranch hand Jett (James Dean) with Leslie.
First child Jordan (Dennis Hopper), pushed unwillingly into masculine pursuits by Bick, bucks his father’s long-term plan by determining to become a doctor. Second child Judy rebels against the extravagant lifestyle and opts, along with husband Dace, for a small spread, the cattleman’s version of a mom-and-pop operation. Third offspring Luz the Second (Carroll Baker) romances the older Jett, now an oil millionaire, and Bick’s business rival.
Racism and exclusion form the core of the picture. Leslie is shocked to discover her father’s employees living in abject poverty, that he will not countenance the cost of improving living conditions, partly on racist grounds, partly on the American principle that it’s every man for himself, a race in which losers are left behind like sores to fester. Jordan marrying a Mexican brings these issues to the fore, especially when his grand heritage cannot protect her from humiliating racism. Bick and Leslie bicker, fall out, make up, are exploited by their children, who can always find one or the other to take their side in any dispute.
Sure there are some terrific lines but the best scenes are simply visually dramatic. Luz, furious at Leslie encroaching on her territory, lames her rival’s favorite horse by riding it with spurs digging into its flesh. A huge crowd welcomes home a white World War Two hero, a handful of people the Mexican equivalent, only when the train pulls away do we see the draped coffin. The introverted by now incoherent Jett unable to summon up the words to complete his proposal to Luz the Second. Terrified four-year-old Jordan atop a horse, not being able, or willing, to ride the worst sin in Bick’s world.
Bick, restraining himself from launching into a fistfight with Jett in the wine cellar of the oil man’s opulent hotel, throws an item at racks of bottles, only to see it topple back, the camera remaining on Bick’s face as we hear the successive toppling of rack upon rack upon rack. Jett, all the wealth he could ever want, wakens from drunken slumber to an empty banqueting room, guests long departed.
A tiny house, as grand as it is, sits in the distance on a massive plain. The passing of time is delineated in relation to horsepower. We are introduced to Bick staring out of a train window watching horses which almost match the speed of the train. Then it is a plane which outruns a car. Finally, when speed, as a demonstration of inherent power, is no longer of the essence the family, in a car, is happy to be overtaken by a speedster.
The power of wealth, the power of power, its corrosive impact on those sharing in what it can bestow, the damage inflicted on those who get in the way, is the other great theme, spelled out not in dogma or speeches but in human cost. And no matter how powerful, someone is always bigger. The dominant Texan cattleman is easily overtaken in the wealth stakes by the oilman, whose political donations ensure tax exemption.
The vindictive Luz gains revenge on her brother by bequeathing Jett a small parcel of land, just enough to prevent the cattleman from owning everything as far as the eye can see and far beyond, just enough to cause irritation.
And this is before we come to the performances. It’s hard to choose between the three principals. Elizabeth Taylor (The Comedians, 1967), fiery, humane, loving, submitting unwillingly to the superior male, arguing her corner, fighting for the rights of others, brings a superbly complex character to brilliant life. But Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) , in a less showy part, is just as good, conflicted, stubborn, initially shy, forced to take on inherited stances, only at the end standing up against what he formerly believed. And you can hardly take your eyes off James Dean, hiding behind a Stetson or a bottle of whisky, inarticulate, lost, greedy, infatuated.
John Huston used to aver that in any given scene the camera did all the work, that with three or four people to choose from, all on screen at the one time, the strongest performer would attract audience attention. Here, that attention constantly flickered from Taylor to Hudson to Dean, as, almost without exerting an acting muscle, they battled for screen dominance.
Taylor was ignored come Oscar time, but Hudson and Dean split the vote allowing Yul Brynner to sneak in, Mercedes McCambridge nominated in the supporting category, Stevens winning his second Oscar. The supporting cast had tremendous depth: Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969), Mercedes McCambridge (99 Women, 1969), Sal Mineo (Escape from Zahrain, 1962), Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), Jane Withers (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) and Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960). Fred Guiol (Shane, 1953) and Ivan Moffat (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) adapted the Edna Ferber bestseller.
I saw this on the big screen in a 4K restoration which means it’s probably heading for streaming and/or DVD but if your local arthouse chances to program this any effort to see it will be well worthwhile.