James McKay (Gregory Peck) is an ex-Navy man from New England who has travelled out West to see the woman he plans to marry, Patricia Terrell (Carroll Baker). She lives in an isolated area of the Mojave desert with her father Major Henry Terrell (Charles Bickford) and his men, though they are not the only claimants to the land there, for they have a fierce rivalry with the Hannasseys, who are led by their own patriarch, Rufus (Burl Ives); his sons are regarded as trash by the relatively well-to-do Terrells and they each take every opportunity to snipe at the other family - and worse. When McKay arrives, he is taunted by the eldest son Buck (Chuck Connors) and his cohorts, humiliating him in front of Patricia... but McKay doesn't see it as a big deal.
After taking on possibly the largest production of its kind in Ben-Hur, director William Wyler was not about to do things by halves, and since Westerns in the nineteen-fifties had customarily grown to epic size and scope, he set out with The Big Country to make the biggest of them all. If he didn't quite succeed in that, maybe the cast was too small for that sort of impact, he assuredly made his mark with one of the decade’s finest efforts in that genre, with its themes taking on the impasse of the Cold War and applying them to a feud between two families who will never see eye to eye as long as they keep nursing their deeply held grudges. Not everyone appreciated what Wyler and his team were attempting, and surprisingly one of those was its famously liberal-minded leading man Peck.
For some reason Peck and Wyler just didn't get along, which renders it all the more unexpected that the actor offered one of his best interpretations here. Often accused of being a stuffy, stolid presence in his movies by his detractors, with this his most humane and decent qualities were brought out in a performance that stood up for intelligence against ignorance in a manner that has not always been fashionable, especially when demonstrating a brain in your head rather than kneejerk reactions were regarded with suspicion by too many. McKay is the smartest guy in the movie, but he doesn't go around pontificating and ordering people about, he uses his wits in a more constructive way than that, one which he understands can bring about a lasting peace to the region he has decided will be his home.
Peck wasn't the only star here, as possibly just as high profile was Charlton Heston as the Major's right hand man Steve Leech, who is taught a valuable lesson in the benefits of non-aggression by McKay after he challenges him to a fight. In a celebrated scene, the two men slug it out in a desert location with no one else around, and McKay makes Leech realise that fighting is pointless when there will be no winner: much as a later hotbed of Cold War filmmaking brought up WarGames, the message is the only way to win is not to play. Also appearing were the inevitable love interests, but even here Baker and Jean Simmons, as her best friend the schoolteacher Julie Maragon, were not simply present to make eyes at Peck and Heston, they had a valuable point to being there as Julie is the one who has inherited the water rights to the area that both the Terrells and Hannasseys are desperate to secure.
When McKay is the one who buys them from her, he hopes to finally bring about a truce and more there, but soon finds himself falling for Julie and vice versa, much to the consternation of Patricia, who in spite of her unthinking prejudices Baker makes sympathetic when we perceive she is out of her depth. Really neither side of the feud has the upper hand, another indication this was a more thoughtful Western from the era when it came of age, willing to take on big ideas in a style the widescreen cinematography of vast landscapes only served to justify. Another bonus was Jerome Moross's terrific soundtrack: when the movie begins with his sweeping strings and Saul Bass's opening titles of the galloping horses and spinning wagon wheels, it was one of the greatest scene setters a Western ever had. But Wyler didn't allow that sense of grandeur to slacken, with grand, impetuous emotions and gestures, plus a message of tolerance tempered with the warning if compromise is not sought, it could spell disaster. With its near-three hour running time, The Big Country had a lot on its mind, and delivered it all very satisfyingly.