Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Big Land, Little Brains

Film: Giant
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Looking at American movies, it would be easy to assume that the basic American assumption is not with violence or sex, but money. Giant is a story of money, but also a story of love, oil, cattle, and racism in Texas in the years between the World Wars and after the second one. It starts simply enough. Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson) travels from his massive ranch (595,000 acres), Reata, in Texas to a horse farm in Maryland to buy a stud horse named War Winds.

He does manage to purchase the horse, but returns to Texas with more than he bargained for. He comes back with a wife—Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Leslie is a headstrong young woman, and also a Yankee, which makes her something of a rarity in Texas not too far from its rough and tumble past. Leslie immediately butts heads with Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCaimbridge). Luz is not a big fan of Bick’s new wife, but it doesn’t really matter much, or at least for too long. Attempting to prove that she is every bit as tough as Bick’s wife, Luz attempts to ride War Winds, is bucked off, hits her head on a mesquite stump, and dies.

We’re also introduced early on to a young ranch hand who works on the Reata. This is Jett Rink (James Dean). Bick’s not a big fan of Jett, who’s ready to quit the ranch after Luz dies. However, Luz remembers him in her will, giving him the rights to a small, relatively worthless piece of land that’s a part of Reata. Bick, wanting to keep all of his land in one piece, offers instead to give Jett double the price of the land.

Jett, however, enjoys the idea of tweaking Bick Benedict and opts for the land instead. Things don’t go so well for Jett for a few years. The Benedicts have twins (Jordan the third, called Jordy) and Judy, as well as another daughter named Luz. Right away, the kids are not what Bick wants them to be—Jordy, it turns out, is not a big fan of horses.

Jett, though, is a big fan of two things: money and Leslie Benedict. He gets the first one when the little oil well he’s built on his “worthless” scrap of land turns up a gusher. More oil wells follow, and suddenly, Jett Rink is the man of the hour, buying up ranches in the area to build more wells and pump up more and more money.

We flash forward a few years until the kids are of college age. Jordy (Dennis Hopper) shocks his father by saying he won’t run the ranch. Instead, he wants to be a doctor. Judy (Fran Bennett) elopes with a local boy, and they don’t want the ranch either, which causes Bick to wonder what he’s been keeping it together for.

Leslie doesn’t wonder about that, but she does wonder about the treatment of the Mexican workers and residents of the area. The Mexicans, openly called “wetbacks” throughout the film up until the very end, live in appalling conditions. Leslie does what she can to help them, much to Bick’s chagrin. Even more to his chagrin, his doctor son marries a Mexican woman named Juana (Elsa Cardenas) and names their very Mexican-looking son Jordan Benedict IV.

Things come to a head when the now filthy-rich, alcoholic Jett Rink opens a new massive hotel and airport complex. Twenty-five years of bad blood, racism, and oil and cattle money finally come to a head.

Giant, for all of its social conscience, still seems to fall flat in the modern world. Bick Benedict’s great awakening doesn’t seem all that great when he calls his own grandson a “wetback.” This film seems very much like Gone With the Wind with oil and Mexicans instead of the Civil War, slaves, and cotton. While the film appears very much to deplore racism against our neighbors to the south, it makes no comment about the fact that in Maryland, all of the rich people are white and all of the servants are black. It could very well draw a parallel here, but doesn’t.

There are good performances all around, but something just seems to fall flat for me here. James Dean is relatively convincing as a middle-aged Jett Rink, but the iconic look—the cowboy hat, jeans, and boots—vanish earlier in the film than I thought they would and he ends up looking a little bit like the unnatural son of Johnny Depp and Steve Buscemi.

I guess I’m ultimately a little disturbed by a film in which the ultimate decisions of right and wrong, good and bad, are decided with an endless series of fistfights.

Why to watch Giant: It’s James Dean’s last movie!
Why not to watch: Don’t mess with Texas—you might get some on ya.


  1. You are so right, James Dean in his Texas Playboy incanation looks exactly like "the unnatural son of Johnny Depp and Steve Buscemi".
    That is a laugh.

    Fistfights does seem to be the modus operandi here, but not really unusual. There is an entire class of movies based on the assumption that you prove your valor and just and integrity by beating somebody up.

    1. And the fistfight = manhood tradition goes back at least as far as Gunga Din.

  2. From the images of the film (including the DVD cover I had) I thought Dean was going to be in this more. His handful of scenes are very memorable though.

    I liked a lot of the film, but like most epics, some parts of the story could have been cut to streamline things. And yes, so many problems seem to be solved by violence.

    1. I agree. There's probably half an hour that could be cut from this without losing much, and the streamlining would help it quite a bit.