Everything is bigger in Texas. THE movie about Texas would have to be a giant among movies and that is exactly what it is. At three hours and fourteen minutes it is a monster to get through (add to that an entire disk of extra material), but also the scope, the lavishness and the all-star cast is just bigger than most other pictures.
“Giant” is in many ways for Texas what “Gone with the Wind” was for Georgia, a portrait of an iconic, if fictional, family on the backdrop of a time and events that changed the land. For “GwtW” it was a plantation through the civil war and the restoration, in “Giant” it is a ranch during the transition from agrarian cowboy land to cosmopolitan oil money. In both cases a transition from conservatism to modernity and I am sure something that was part of forming the American narrative. Yeah, big words from an outsider, but this is not really rocket science.
Epic tales are usually problematic in movies because the medium does not really lend itself well to that sort of story. You need a television series or a book format. In a movie the story is truncated by how long you can keep people in the cinema and usually end up mutilated through abbreviation. I would say George Stevens, the director, did a decent job here, but that abbreviation is still the weakness of the film.
We follow Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), third generation owner of the enormous Reata ranch in Texas and Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) of green and verdant Maryland from their brief courtship in their youth to their middle age thirty years later. They represent two very different points of view, ultra conservative Bick and progressive and liberated Leslie, and they could hardly be more different. In fact if you ever needed an argument against quick and spontaneous weddings this would be it. They practically come from different planets and had they known each other a little better I doubt they would ever have married.
The conflict between them is very much the fuel of the movie. As they approach each challenge from their own end of the spectrum we get an issue out of practically everything. It is tempting to see Bick’s conservatism as little more than the right to be an asshole and Leslie as the one bringing some common sense to this backward place, but it is not the entire story. Particularly in the beginning we see Leslie losing the sense of the situation in her eagerness to bring on modernity. Yes, it is terribly old fashioned to exclude women from politics, but sometimes men just like to have their own thing and we still do.
As Bick and Leslie grow older they converge as a symbol of modern Texas I suppose. Leslie gets to like the Texas freedom and Bick embraces modernity, both of them swallowing a few camels on the way. I think we are supposed to like both of them from the beginning, but maybe I am just not attuned to the Texas way of doing things. In the name of his conservative heritage Bick is being a dick again and again. Whether it is against the Latinos, women, his children or Jett Rink, Bick is a bigot. It earned him a hearty dislike from me that was only reluctantly lifted near the end. I think the final compromise is still fairly to the right of my preferences.
What saves the film from being tedious family drama is the character of Jett Rink (James Dean). Jett is the personification of outside pressure on the family. From start to end he is the one poking at the family through his crush on Leslie, his carving out a piece of Reata land and by bringing in oil millions and a possible end to the old way of life. Jett is progress in the fast lane, the energy the tears up old bond, but he is no less a bigot than Bick. However without scruples and conscience he is also the more dangerous of the two. In a sense he is Texas without restraint. The manner in which the Benedicts deal with Jett Rink is a reflection of their own development.
For me the single most interesting element of “Giant” is the treatment of racism. That is done in a very modern way, especially when you consider this is 1956 and as far as I understand it years before the civil rights movement. The movie highlights the conditions the Mexicans, or Hispanics are living under and especially the offhand way they are treated by whites. They are very literally second class people and even talking to them as normal people is frowned upon. Of course when Leslie’s and Benedicts son, Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries a Latino that really set the issue on the edge. Seeing Bick smiling at his white grandson and frowning at his mixed-blood grandson was infuriating. My own son is in a sense a mix and seventy-five years ago I would have been Jordy.
This is definitely a movie with an excellent cast and an interesting use of it as well. Instead of making old actors look young, the principal actors here are all young and made to look older as the story progress, something I think works better than the other way around. Hudson, Taylor and Dean all pull that off beautifully. This was the last movie James Dean did, he died before shooting was over, and it is by far the most tempered performance of his. The mannerism that tended to annoy me in his two other movies is not gone, but toned down and that suits him. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor still had many movies to come and they both deliver very mature performances here.
When it comes to “Giant” whether I like it or not feels irrelevant. This is a big movie and very impressive at that and actually quite interesting beyond all the dazzle.