Released: November 1956 (US)
Awards: Various including Best Director Academy Award for George Stevens
Fun Fact: Elizabeth Taylor was actually a year younger than Carroll Baker who played her daughter Luz and only four years older than Dennis Hopper who played her son.
George Stephens’ 1956 western-drama is a film all about Texas. Its people, its history, its landscapes and its prejudices.
The film, based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, tells the story of the ranch owner Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) who travels north to buy a horse and manages to pick up a wife, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Bick is the king of the castle on his ranch in Texas until a tiny plot of land bequeathed to one of his ranch-hands, Jett (James Dean), turns into an oil-field worth millions, making Jett Rink one of the wealthiest men in America.
So first things first, this is not a brief film. It clocks in at a whopping three hours and 17 minutes and spans a timescale of over a quarter-century as Bick and Leslie’s children grow up and Jett grows wealthier and more antagonistic. Along the journey we see a softening of the old attitudes as Bick comes to accept his son’s choices to i) not take on the ranch, opting for medicine instead and ii) marry a Mexican woman, not a Caucasian.
Re-assessing the film now, almost 60 years later, it’s impossible not to be dazzled by the star power on show. Leading this is of course James Dean, a man whose premature death means he’s considered now as much as a cultural icon for disaffected youth as he is an actor. He’s an incredibly natural presence on screen and you can see how he was bucking the trend of the time to be “acting” at all times. The sad tragedy of it all being the fact that – as we all know now – Dean died between the film’s completion and delayed release.
Seeing Dean on-screen with the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor – another person whose stardom seemed to overtake her acting credits – is a true joy as Taylor is another who isn’t over-selling everything like the movie stars before her might have done. We know what Rock Hudson did, and he does his thing here. That’s not to undersell him, it’s just that he’s really required to be a strait-laced cowboy and foil to Taylor. His big journey to acceptance is one of the film’s central narrative arcs and by its end he’s the good guy while Jett Rink might not have too many fans left.
A quick word for Dennis Hopper who popped up here giving one of his early performances. He had a bit part opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Case a year previously but has a little more to do here and comes across great despite the heavy hair and make-up job necessitated of the era.
If being adapted today, Giant would never be allowed to run so long. It would likely be a four-part mini-series running on one of the US cable channels. If you’re going to tackle it at home (though a 60th anniversary theatrical run next year would be welcome), then splitting it into chapters works very well. In my mind this really is a true classic.