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GIANT (1956)

A Classic Film Review

Reviewed by Ozgur Pamukcu

George Stevens’ sprawling adaptation of Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel successfully walks a fine line between potboiler and serious drama for its 210-minute running time, making it one of the few epics of its era that continues to hold up as engrossing entertainment across the decades. Giant’s reputation, which is based in part on a host of positive reviews and 10 Academy Award nominations, greatly exceeds its actual quality.

Giant starts out in Texas during the early 1920s. The story of a wealthy land owner and cattle rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) who marries a spoiled and wealthy, gorgeous Virginian Ranch owner`s daughter Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). When the two return to Hudson’s cattle empire in Texas, conflicts around race, class and changing traditions rise to epic proportions and test the unity of the family and surrounding community. We then follow the couple through their life as family conflict arises and then enters James Dean as a farm hand who is entranced by the beauty of Leslie (Taylor) and there are some extremely complex, fascinating and thoroughly well acted sequences between the two where he is trying to mask his admiration by his defensive uncommunicative character while she is playing a patron to his poor white man who she considers is trying to improve himself .
This beautifully shot and slightly overblown film adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel, plays almost as a classy and lengthy “Dallas” episode. Elizabeth Taylor was gloriously beautiful and endearing, while her scenes with Dean were beyond gripping. The chemistry they had off set translated magically on film. The same can be said of Hudson and Dean’s scenes, which were hypnotizing in their contrasts. Dean being a “method” actor and Hudson being more of a traditional film actor made the screen time they shared together compelling to witness. As for James Dean himself, although a secondary character, he owns every single frame on which he appears via his magnetism, his natural demeanor and his acting choices. He is a force of nature with an on-screen charisma the likes of which has never been seen again.

However, I felt movie was overlong, and sometimes preaching too much.. As an example, the prejudice against Mexicans, especially the son’s wife, becomes repetitious. The entire sequence when the son confronts Jett over the slight to his wife could have been eliminated because the restaurant scene was more than sufficient. Other scenes which could have been shortened or eliminated include the military funeral for Angel, Bick trying to one-up Jett with the airplane and the kids crying over the Thanksgiving turkey. It is probably the first film to show Mexican Americans and their situation in a realistic way. This was James Dean’s third and last film. He died way too young in a car crash at age 24 a short time after shooting on Giant was completed. Overall, I thought that Stevens just fell in love with the material (as most of us do when we watch the film) and just didn’t use his editor’s scissors as much as he could have.

I found it very interesting how George Stevens cast the actors. For the roles of the authority figures wanting to maintain the status quo, he cast traditional Hollywood movie stars embedded in the studio system. For the characters who threatened the status quo, he picked actors who threatened the Hollywood studio system in real life.

Giant’s protagonist is Leslie. She’s the one truly “good” person in the film; a woman of strong, undeniable principles who seeks to bring reform to the time-worn prejudices of her husband’s ranch Riata, despite the odds. Yet, even though the story is told from her perspective, the most complex character is Bick, who shows a wide spectrum of human vices and virtues. He can be sweet and loving or cold and cruel. There are times when the audience roots for him, and times when they can’t stand him. Hudson’s performance is exemplary. At the end of the film, Hudson’s character has a really knock-down fight in which Hudson stands up with his fists for the right of a Mexican couple to eat in a diner. This leads to a moving scene in which Miss Taylor, now middle-aged, tells Hudson of her admiration for him. With a smile on her face she tells him that she was never so proud of him as when she saw him on the floor covered with salad.

George Stevens has, within this huge story of a Texas family, provided the viewer with a structure that has universal meaning about change and acceptance, and about hope for freedom and justice for all of us. In the final shots of the film, there are dissolves to close ups of the grandchildren’s eyes as the song The Eyes of Texas are Upon You plays on the soundtrack. The eyes of the children are the next generation looking at the viewers to see if they can live in harmony together.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention didn’t mention the great music score by Dmitri Tiomkin, which “glues” the whole film together and gives Giant its epic feeling. This combined with songs written by others, like The Yellow Rose of Texas, captures the zeitgeist not only of the period in which the story takes place but also the period of time in Hollywood in which the film was made. Tiomkin was one of the greats of Hollywood film scoring, and this is one of the best scores he ever wrote. I remember seeing this film a few years ago at The Castro Theater in San Francisco and sitting with a friend as the exit music played. We just didn’t want the film to end, but like all good things…

What is wonderful about Giant is that it’s nearly 60 years old but the power of its drama is still with us, with its message of tolerance and acceptance, one lesson we still need to learn.