Giant Review

Jordan Benedict II, known as “Bick” (Rock Hudson), the scion of a wealthy Texas landowning family, arrives at the Lynnton’s Maryland farm to buy a prize stallion called War Winds. He gets more than he bargained for when he meets and falls in love with the eldest daughter Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). They marry and he takes her back with him to his ranch, Reata. At first, Leslie conflicts with the traditional way of life in Texas, and particularly Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Also on the scene is family hand Jett Rink (James Dean), whom the old-money Benedicts look down on, though Leslie strikes up some rapport with him. When Luz dies suddenly in an accident, she leaves a small plot of land to Jett. He resists the Benedicts’ attempts to buy him out. Then Jett strikes oil on his land…

Unlike Rebel Without a Cause and to a lesser extent East of Eden, Giant is not so much a James Dean film, rather than one in which he plays a leading role rather than being centre stage. And as such, it does give us some insight into how his career might have progressed if he hadn’t died during production. (He’d finished shooting all his scenes and was going to make Somebody Up There Likes Me next, when he had his fatal car accident. Nick Adams, uncredited, looped some of his dialogue.)

There’s a tendency to see Giant as an overblown epic, a product of George Stevens’s later years where he began to make films that took themselves too seriously and gained running time like anabolic steroids, frequently tipping the three-hour mark. Well, I’m going to stand against received opinion and say that I think Giant is a wonderful film. In fact it’s my favourite of the three in the box set. It is a long film, but it doesn’t seem too long. Compared to Kazan and Ray, Stevens may be lacking in visual flair – though he’s not without it, and could certainly compose shots as well as anyone else. However, Stevens’s strength was editing, in control of pace, in variation of tone (there’s certainly humour to be had here), and the pleasure of Giant is in the pleasure of craftsmanship, of a good story very well told. Stevens earned the film’s only Oscar, from eleven nominations, as Best Director. The film had gone wildly over budget and schedule, but it earned its money back, being Warners’s highest-grossing film until Superman twenty-two years later.

Stevens also had a great strength with actors. As Kazan did in East of Eden, he helped convey the tension between the Benedicts and Jet Rink by playing off Dean’s Actors’ Studio style versus the more traditional Hollywood style of Rock Hudson. Both men were Oscar-nominated for their work here, this being Dean’s second posthumous nod, his one the previous year for East of Eden being the first one in the Academy’s history. This was the only Oscar nomination Hudson ever received, and deservedly so, as it could well be his best screen role, rivalled only by his work on Seconds. There’s a tendency to knock Hudson as a lightweight actor, who went a long way on his good looks – especially since the revelation of his homosexuality and his death from AIDS, which has caused many to try to “decode” the romantic comedies he made with Doris Day – but Stevens gets fine work out of him here. He conveys an easy, unassuming masculinity: a basically decent man flawed by the attitudes of his time and place (racism and snobbery) and not always able to make his wife out, as he says at the very end of the film when he’s become a man out of his time. Twenty-nine at the time, he also ages convincingly. Elizabeth Taylor, twenty-three and at the height of her beauty, gives one of her best performance. She gets a scene that has earned the attention of feminists, in which she speaks out against the patriarchal attitudes of her husband and his friends. This wasn’t entirely unprecedented (check out Dorothy Arzner’s 1944 cult B movie, Dance Girl Dance), but this was definitely not something people were used to seeing in the cinema in 1956. There’s a strong supporting cast too, including teenaged Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo, reteaming with Dean from Rebel Without a Cause.

Texans reputedly resented Edna Ferber’s original novel, though they have apparently taken Stevens’s film to their hearts, as the state’s native epic. There’s certainly something rousing in the major chords of Dimitri Tiomkin’s famous – and Oscar-nominated – score. Once again, you have to wonder how a foreign immigrant, Russian in this case, could compose music which seems the essence of Americana. However, Giant is not without its criticism of the Texan way of life. Although its epic sweep is played out as the story of a family over two generations, the story does cover many changes in the first half of the twentieth century: the change from a cattle economy to an oil-based one, old money versus new, and a clear-eyed look at the situation of women and of racial tensions. I’ve mentioned the feminist themes. In its treatment of racial tension, Giant is equally ahead of its time, even going so far as to include an interracial marriage, which produces a child.

Giant stands up beautifully fifty years after it was made, and not just because of Dean’s presence. It’s certainly uncanny to watch his character grow to a much greater age than Dean would ever live to (and, to a lesser extent, the same could be said of Hudson as well). There’s no doubt that in his three major roles, Dean struck lucky in his directors, and if he’d continued to live he would no doubt have not been so fortunate. At the time he had a great rivalry with another Method-trained actor, Marlon Brando, and there’s some suggestion that whatever creative pressure was driving Brando eased off a little when Dean was no longer around. You have to wonder what Dean might have gone on to do – would he, as David Thomson suggests, have had a Last Tango in him?

As with East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Giant is available both separately and as part of a three-film box set. Giant was previously released on DVD in 2003 and one strike against this box set is that if you bought that release back then you will already have one third of the set as the edition of Giant included here is exactly the same. It’s released on two discs, the film on a DVD-18 with a commentary and some extras, with more extras on a DVD-9. The version reviewed is NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Giant is one of those films you assume has to be in Scope, so it may come as a surprise to some that it isn’t. Stevens resisted the format because early CinemaScope lenses tended to distort the image and because he felt that in this story, height was more important than width. (He did however shoot The Diary of Anne Frank in CinemaScope at 20th Century Fox’s insistence, and used Ultra Panavision 70 – a combination of 65mm negative and anamorphic lenses – on The Greatest Story Ever Told.) Giant was made at a time when a variety of aspect ratios were used for non-Scope films, before the industry settled on 1.85:1. Giant is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.66:1. In most shots there is room over character’s heads, which means that you could crop this to 1.85:1, but look more closely and you can see that Stevens uses objects in the background – especially those oil wells – to mark the top of the frame, and you’ll see that this DVD is best shown in the ratio it has been transferred in. You could argue that it should have been anamorphically enhanced, and I’d go along with that: owners of widescreen TVs have a choice between black bars on screen or cropping the image when zooming it to 16:9. That said, as non-anamorphic NTSC goes, it’s a good transfer, though as ever this will depend on what kind of equipment you view it on. It looked fine on a 28” widescreen TV, but on progressive-scan equipment such as a PC monitor, edge enhancement was frequently visible. The colours are true to the film: Stevens and his DP William C. Mellor, using the studio’s WarnerColor process which used Eastman film, play down bold colours and often play scenes in shade, evidently sensing that the vast Texas countryside was visually striking enough. This shadow detail comes over very well on DVD. The film is spread over two sides, breaking at the intended intermission point at 108 minutes. The film ends with nearly two minutes of play-out music over a black screen.

Giant was reissued for its fortieth anniversary, and the sound was remixed. The soundtrack on this DVD is that remixed version, in Dolby Digital 2.0 with surround encoding. The remix is a respectful one, for which much thanks – it’s more or less mono with Tiomkin’s score playing through the surrounds. There’s no LFE channel, but the oil-gusher scene does pick up some redirected bass. There are fifty-six chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.

The extras on Disc One begin with an introduction to the film by George Stevens Jr. Recorded for the fortieth anniversary reissue,.this is 4:3 and runs 2:58. Stevens Jr also features on the commentary track, along with critic Stephen Farber and co-screenwriter Ivan Moffat. The three men evidently get on well (Moffatt thanks Farber for his interesting comments at the end), and the chat easily sustains the three and a quarter hour running time. All three have interesting things to say.

On Side B of Disc One is a documentary made in 2001, George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him, a set of interviews with directors old and new who had worked with Stevens. The interviewees, each of whom has a separate chapter to himself, are Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Alan J. Pakula, Antonio Vellani (associate producer of The Greatest Story Ever Told), Robert Wise and Fred Zinnemann. Although it’s a tribute to a famous late director, as quite a few of these men have since passed on themselves, or in Wise’s case still alive but very elderly, this is a valuable record of them as well. This featurette is in 4:3 and runs 45:37.
Disc Two, like the second discs of the other films in this boxset, features a pair of documentaries both around the hour mark. However, instead of the pair being one vintage and one contemporarily made, these two date from 1996 and 1998, respectively Return to Giant (55:07, thirteen chapters) and Memories of Giant (51:36, sixteen chapters). The former concentrates more on the location shoot in Marfa, Texas, including interviews with locals who were involved in the film. The latter is a more traditional making-of with interviews with surviving people. Elizabeth Taylor is the most notable absentee. Rock Hudson turns up in an archive interview saying something that in retrospect is very poignant: he relates how he caught the movie on TV one night and compared his film self (twenty-nine made up to look fifty-five) with his real fiftysomething self and finding no difference at all. So, he said, the end of the film meant he now knew what he would look like when he was seventy…which age he would sadly never reach. Needless to say, Dean, and his death during production, features heavily in both documentaries.

The footage of the New York Premiere (running 28:51, and oddly presented in 4:3 windowboxed into anamorphic 16:9. Chill Wills is our host, and he introduces several guests, including George Stevens (Senior and Junior), Rock Hudson plus wife, and Carroll Baker. This is rather long and not especially interesting, and for most people this will be a one-watch item. The footage of the Hollywood Premiere (even more oddly presented in anamorphic 16:9) is much shorter, running 4:21.

“Giant Stars Are Off to Texas” (0:38) is a brief snippet from Warner Pathé News, from just before the location shoot began. The leaving party features Elizabeth Taylor cutting a Texas-shaped cake. The first page of extras on this disc concludes with a self-navigating stills gallery containing fifty-four mostly black and white images, running 7:12. These include Dean practising his lassoing, and Stevens accepting his Oscar. There’s also a document gallery, again self-navigating, featuring thirty-three items in 4:24. It’s fascinating to see the memos going back and forth between Jack L. Warner and Stevens, particularly as the film went over schedule and more than tripled its budget.

On to the second page of extras, and as with the Rebel Without a Cause disc, there are segments from the TV show Behind the Cameras, presented by Gig Young. Their titles are self-explanatory: “On location in Marfa, Texas” (5:58), which begins with Young locating the town with a magnifying glass on a large map of the state, and “A Visit with Dimitri Tiomkin” (6:33). Four trailers are next, a “book” trailer (1:33) and the standard version (3:45), both from 1956, plus reissue trailers from 1963 (2:29) and 1970 (3:03). None of them are in especially good condition, with faded colours and scratches and specks galore, particularly in the 1970 version, and the latter three all contain plot spoilers.

The remaining extras are text-based. “A Giant Undertaking” is a run-through of the production from start to finish, divided into six sections. Given the other material on the discs, this seems redundant. The other text extras are more basic: a Stevens filmography, a list of Awards the film won, and a listing of the principal cast and crew.

Giant may not, in the end, be a great film. But it’s a very good one that holds the viewer’s attention throughout its three-hour-plus running time. Warners’ DVD is very good, though an anamorphic transfer and proper subtitling of the extras would have made it better. Also, many will have bought this already, which may preclude them buying the box set it forms a part of.

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