A Giant in Storytelling

Racially progressive. Best Director winner. James Dean’s last performance before his untimely death.

George Stevens’s Giant is notable in one way or another, not least because of its epic scope and legendary team. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1956, winning both critical and public acclaim. But it’s the impeccable plot and character interactions, which are allowed to take place and develop over the course of three decades, that the modern film industry has the most to learn from. These core functions work so naturally well together; there never arises a need for melodrama or contrived plot devices. Despite carrying strong messages about segregation, gender roles, and stagnating cultures, at its heart, Giant is about the ways people around us may change us, if we only let them.

The plot follows Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), the proud only son of a wealthy Texas rancher dynasty, as he does everything in his power to ensure that his family tradition is preserved. People come and go throughout his life, and each serves as a wake-up call for him to change his attitude, with or without him realizing it. Fittingly, the story is set around WWII, a turbulent time not only for those in combat abroad but also for individuals at home. But the true beauty of the film’s plot lies in its precise linearity, which is simultaneously powerful and invisible. While Giant possesses the qualities of an epic, every major development is the indirect result of the events of the opening scene and is rooted in the decisions of a single character, starting from when Bick returns from his horse-buying excursion on the East Coast with an unexpected bonus: a bride named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). She’s probably one of the best better-halves in film history and everything Bick is not: open-minded, cheery, and self-possessed. Her arrival on the Benedict ranch in Texas sets into motion fundamental changes, some taking place on a physical scale, others registering only in the depths of another’s subconscious.

A mere few days after getting back to the ranch comes the death of Luz, Bick’s gruff and dignified older sister who ran the ranch with a keen vigilance and was bucked off a newly bought horse while attempting to tame it (thus asserting her position as head of the household over Leslie, who the horse symbolizes). Grieving and left the sole manager of the ranch, Bick adopts the same stubbornness and adherence to tradition prized by his sister. He rarely smiles and masks his insecurities with a shawl of masculinity and remembrance, setting high expectations for his son, constantly referencing the greatness of his family history, and looking down upon the Mexicans. It’s quickly seen that misgivings about oneself is the mother of discrimination and stubbornness, which ultimately harm the ones we love the most.

James Dean and Mercedes McCambridge in Scenes from the movie “Giant”. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Leslie remains very proactive in all of this. Time and time again she demonstrates wisdom and independence beyond her years, vowing early on not to be seen as a thin-blooded Easterner and maneuvering her marital hiccups with skill. But most notable is her knack for balancing out her husband’s stubbornness and consoling him in his disappointment. No one knows her husband better than her, and her treatment consists of feigning remoteness and staying altogether peppy in the face of his mood swings but also of telling him “don’t blame yourself”. She becomes the only one capable of softening Bick and is the one who slowly brings down the barriers against change that surround him. About thirty minutes in, she tells Luz “I’m a lot stronger than you think I am.” It’s a simple line, but it rings truer than any other throughout the film.

Of the rest of the characters, the most important is Jett Rink (Dean’s character), a Charles Foster Kane-esque persona who starts as a sullen ranch hand under Bick but becomes a multibillionaire after striking oil on a small piece of land given to him in Luz’s will. Not one to work well with authority figures in the first place, his relationship with Bick deteriorates even more given Jett’s interest in Leslie, his influence on Bick’s children, and the looming threat that his oil farms pose to the Benedict farm in terms of both livelihood and relevance. He is the biggest menace to the ego of Bick, who holds a fear of being antiquated while holding on dearly to tradition, his heated, passionate character contrasting with Jett’s cool, simpering one. One of the film’s most memorable shots is that of a shiny red oil truck gliding down the road where the camera pans to Bick and one of his companions sitting on horses, staring in concealed annoyment, and looking downright neanderthalic on their horses in front of the ranch’s rickety old archway.

Yet, at the crest of his unrelenting climb to the top, Jett finds that it was not wealth and escape from mundanity that he truly wanted but rather a sense of love and belonging, specifically from Leslie. His perverted ambitions culminate in a drunken rant in front of a non-existent audience and a sobbing crash to the ground. Dean, who took the part to avoid being typecast as a rebellious teenager, skillfully creates a persona who is very sympathizable despite being an antagonist. He constructs a tacit layer of insecurity and longing which makes for a truly tragic ruination.

As he witnesses Jett’s downfall, Bick relieves their feud and realizes the fallacy of the blind and vehement pursuit of his goals, which makes life difficult for everyone, including himself. Having gone through a very distinguishable five stages of grief over the course of thirty years, he accepts the choice of his children to pursue different occupations and begins standing up for Mexicans rather than shunning them. Throughout the film, it is small moments of tenderness that redeem him (especially those provoked by Leslie), but his final actions make him a truly memorable character. The deaths he witnesses throughout the life, particularly that of a young soldier of Mexican descent, give him a new appreciation for the brevity of life and therefore the criminality of trying to impose restraints on it. Both men are renowned leaders of their field, but only Bick has the wisdom to realize the greater importance of other things before it’s too late. By the film’s end, we see that what makes a man (or woman) truly great is his openness to change and satisfaction with what he has.

Despite carrying such heavy themes, the film manages to stay light-hearted throughout, rarely gets bogged down in its own mopiness, and comes beautifully full-circle. In that regard, much of the credit must also be reserved for Edna Ferber, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the film’s source material, who turned down multiple adaptation requests until Stevens promised to leave the original untouched — rightfully so, as we now see. In the end, the privileged, established Texan still gets the girl and the good life, and the poor ranch boy still ruins himself, but we can be made to forget, or even ignore, such things with a skilled storyteller’s touch. Gone With the Wind (1939) wasn’t exactly a landmark in egalitarianism, but I’ll be damned if Scarlett O’Hara isn’t as holy a figure in America as the Pope himself.