Video Vault: ‘Giant’

A Good Lookin’ Cast: Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean star in today’s
Video Vault Classic feature, “Giant.”

1956 – George Stevens
Rated G – 201 minutes
Vault Rating: 7

In its three hours and twenty-one minutes, “Giant” makes its points bluntly in the context of the squabbles over land and wealth of the moneyed class in Texas.

It is a love story in its first half but a story about racism in its second half. It won its Oscars by doing what Hollywood often does, by pointing out the injustice of racism. This polemic is set in an epic about a landed family, The Benedicts, and how that family comes to grip with Mexicans.

Bick Benedict (Hudson) travels east from his giant Texas ranch, Reata (Spanish for “lariat”) to buy a high spirited stallion called War Winds. The horse, black with a small white patch on the center of his brow, is symbolic, of course. But Benedict also lassoes a wife, the lovely, moneyed, headstrong Leslie Lynnton (Liz Taylor) who might just as well be from another planet as the one Bick comes from. Either way, Benedict gets a sweet ride in the deal.

When Bick returns with Leslie, her education in the ways of the west begins and she expresses compassion for the low conditions of the mexican workers who exist almost as untouchables on Reata. Apparently, it takes a move from a Marryland estate filled with black servants to a Texas estate filled with brown servants to wake up to social inequality.

What’s kind of interesting is that the lesson could still be learned today by the amount of vigor devoted to the political debate about immigration raging all over the cable channels. We must, using Rock Hudson’s and Liz Taylor’s and James Dean’s 53 year old example, consider the current debate nothing more than what it really comes down to; a matter of racism.

Racism, historically, has always been about the haves and the have-nots; class-warfare if you will. And today’s film has it all with a goodly dollop of women’s suffrage on top. As Leslie acclimates to Texas, she is shown her place where it comes to politics and the like, adding yet another undercurrent of inequity.

There is a decent melodrama between Leslie, Bick, and the handsome ranch hand, Jet Rink (James Dean) and you suspect that Rink would like to have anything of Bick’s as his own, extending possibly even to his wife whom he has befriended. When Rink is bequeathed a small piece of land, he finally has something of his own, a toehold and a view into the moneyed class, if not a passport to the good life.

All in all, though, it is a handsome cast and we are pleased to report some fabulous cinematography and locations. Some of the frames in “Giant” are just that, big, sweeping landscapes that seem to say a lot more about the west of the early oil era than any old film possibly can.

There is a piece of filmmaking at the end, though, that is just – by today’s standards anyway – a matter of being hit over the head with a board. Watch it and you’ll see. Perhaps there was a lot of moralizing in films of the 1950s. The end of “The Bad Seed” comes screaming to mind on this count. And “Giant” does its part to keep faith with the style of the day.

It is ironic that the last, most truculent form of bigotry, that of homophobia, represented by Rock Hudson, who was gay, and James Dean, who was bi-sexual, never rears its head. Ah, that’s probably not fair to the movie, especially since we are discussing it more than 50 years after the fact. I kind of have to smile at Liz Taylor in the midst of a modest triangle with Hudson and Dean.

“Giant” is a big melodrama and it proceeds at its own Texan pace and it rewards repeated viewing. And we haven’t even gotten to the rich cast of secondary characters who keep things bubbling along so that a long movie doesn’t feel long. Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) and Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills) are the very soul of Texas. Characters like these and Judge Whiteside (Charles Watts) lend an air of western style and grace so that the aforementioned themes play sweetly together down home on the range.

There is a young Dennis Hopper as Jordan Benedict III who is fun to watch even as he begins to blur racial norms when he falls in love with a Latina. And there is a young Sal Mineo as Angel Obregon II, another servant raised on Reata who raises his station by proudly entering the U.S. military, always a sign of class in 1950s era films.

There is much going on around the nearly 600,000 acre Benedict ranch, to be sure, and the Video Vault invites you to saddle up and give a classic old western melodrama another look.

Until next time. Enjoy!

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