Movies As Art

“We have to make a sustained effort, again and again, to cultivate the positive aspects within us.” ~Dalai Lama

“Peace cannot be kept by force. it can only be achieved by understanding.” –Albert Einstein

“I’m not responsible for what people think, Pat, only for what I am.” –Jim McKay, as played by Gregory Peck in The Big Country

Director's Sky Over the Huachucas

After I wrote last week’s post, about the movie Friendly Persuasion, I was second guessing myself about continuing a series about movies. I don’t know why I always do that. I thought that discussing movies was a silly idea.Then last weekend, my husband and I saw Monuments Men, and I changed my mind. Art is of vital importance to the human race, because it reflects who are. It shows our souls. Movies are a particularly effective art form, because when we see a movie, we we enter the characters lives and feel what they’re feeling. Entering the lives of the characters in a movie can change our perspective.

 So, this week I’ve chosen to write about another movie I love, a pacifistic Western. Maybe you didn’t know there was such a thing. I suggest you check out, The Big Country  1958 with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carol Baker, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives. And just like last week’s movie, it’s directed by William Wyler.

In The Big Country, Gregory Peck plays Jim McKay, a sea captain, from Baltimore, who has fallen in love with Carol Baker’s character, Pat Terrill, while she’s back East going to school. She’s the daughter of a rich Texas cattle rancher. The movie begins with Jim’s arrival in the small town near the Terrill ranch, and right away, we know something’s wrong. What we discover is that Jim McKay has landed in the middle of a blood feud between Major Henry Terrill, played by Charles Bickford, and Rufus Hannassey, played by Burl Ives.

The protagonist, Jim McKay is an enigma to everyone. He’s not the typical mysterious stranger coming to town with guns strapped to his hip. No, he’s a man of peace. Throughout the movie, he does things that confound and change almost everyone he meets. In this way, he’s not your typical protagonist. Most of the time it’s the main character that suffers and changes. In this case, because of who McKay is, those around him change for the better. He’s the moral center of the movie.

Not all of the characters change for the better, however. One who doesn’t is Major Terrill. At one point in the movie, he says, “I don’t understand this man, Steve.” Of course he doesn’t understand. him, because he’s convinced that violence is the only way to solve his problems. He’s not alone in this belief. But McKay refuses to play that game, which causes the other characters to do some hard thinking.

There are only two characters who seem to understand him. Julie Maragon, Pat’s friend, and Julie’s former hired hand Ramon. At one point Ramon says of McKay, “A man like that is very rare.”

One incident after another causes Major Terrill’s hired hands to question the fight they’ve been carrying on for so long. First, Jim tries to stop Major Terrill from punishing the Hannassey’s for roughing him up on the road his first day in town. Then he refuses to ride the crazy horse that the hands always put the tenderfoots on. After that he sets out on his own to see the surrounding country, even though he’s been warned, it’s a “big country” and people who’ve lived there all their lives have gotten lost. Of course, being a sea captain, he knows how to navigate through vast areas. All of these incidences lead up to a break between Pat and himself. She idolizes her father, and believes that Jim is a coward, because he shuns violence.

Though McKay is a nonviolent man, he does use violence twice in the movie. The first time is a calculated attempt to get Charlton Heston’s character, Steve Leech to see that violence is not the way to solve problems. He accepts Leech’s offer to fight, but he does it in the middle of the night when there are no witnesses. At the end of the fight he asks Leech, “Now tell me Leech, what did we prove?” That’s a big turning point in the outcome of the movie.

The other time McKay uses violence is at the Hannassey ranch in Blanco Canyon. Julie Maragon, who was the owner of the Big Muddy, until she sold it to McKay, is kidnapped by Buck Hannassey, Rufus’ son. The Maragon ranch has the largest water source in the area, The Big Muddy River. All the area ranchers must water their cattle in the river during the dry season. Terrill has kept the Hannassey cattle from the river.

The object of the kidnapping is two fold, to lure Henry Terrill to the canyon, so Rufus can kill him. The other objective is to force her to sell her ranch to them. McKay attempts to avert violence by promising the Hannassey’s they can have all the water they want. But, Buck, hits Julie when she tries to keep him from shooting McKay. That is the one time, when McKay acts without thinking. He fights Buck Hannassey.

The feud is ended when Rufus sees that McKay’s right, the violence will only escalate and everyone will die. He offers to fight Terrill alone, just the two of them.

The main reason I love this movie, is because of the message behind it. Violence is weakness. McKay is the embodiment of integrity and strength, because he values peace, he knows who he is, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him.

We all know the debate that goes on about how violent movies and TV shows cause our children to be violent people. I believe that violent movies and TV shows reflect our cultural attitudes, more than influence them. We value the tough individual who shows little emotion and who gets the job done no matter what. Of course we see violence as a way to solve our problems, because look at how our country was born, with a bloody revolution. Unlike other revolutions, we had some very smart Founding Fathers who managed to create a new kind of government without the aftermath of continued bloodshed. But, throughout the years, we’ve felt pride in the fact that we stood up for our rights and didn’t back down.

The Revolution was more than two-hundred years ago. It’s a new age, and we should know by now that violence isn’t solving our current problems, it’s exacerbating them.

If you question my assertions, take a look at the two movies I’ve suggested so far, Friendly Persuasion, and The Big Country. Have a movie night with your family and friends. Discuss the situations in the movies. What are the different ways the characters deal with the violence around them? How are those situations similar and different than what’s going on in our society today? Does violence perpetuate more violence? What do the characters learn about themselves as they deal with their circumstances?

I believe Einstein was right when he said, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We’ve tried solving problems by being tough and using violence again and again. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014

Published by lucindasagemidgorden

I grew up in the West, the descendant of people traveling by wagon train to a new life. Some of their determination and wanderlust became a part of me. I imagine them sitting around the campfire telling stories, which is why I became first a theatre artist, then a teacher and now a writer. They are all ways of telling stories.

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