“It is a saga of America…Though the film chronicles the rise of a great Texas cattle and oil dynasty and its relationship to the rest of the community, it could be the story of any section of the United States, confronted with parallel problems. It is Americana.” – George Stevens
Years ago, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama There Will Be Blood (2007) was released, I came across a review that compared it to George Stevens’ Western epic Giant (1956) and went on to say that the former was a prequel of sorts to the latter. This comparison intrigued and stayed with me for years, making me think of Stevens’ film in a new light. Like Anderson’s film, Giant chronicles the emergence of big oil in the United States only on a much larger scale. It depicts the trials and tribulations of a Texas family from the 1920s until after World War II.
Adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name, it was directed by Stevens who had made the masterful Western Shane (1953), and starred three young actors in their twenties: Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor – both of whom had already made several films – and James Dean, who was appearing in only his third film but already had an Academy Award nomination and would receive another one for his performance in Giant. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed. The film went on to become a big commercial and critical hit and is rightly viewed as a cinematic masterpiece even though it isn’t talked about as much anymore.
We first meet Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Hudson) en route to Ardmore, Maryland where he intends to buy a horse he plans to put out to stud. He’s the head of a wealthy Texas ranching family and ends up falling in love with the horse owner’s beautiful daughter Leslie Lynton (Taylor). Bick is a confident man that becomes strangely uncomfortable when talking about the size of his ranch but once he meets Leslie, he can’t stop thinking about her and is unable to get to sleep. She is also a confident person in her own right and is smitten with Bick, reading a book about Texas after meeting him. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have a fantastic chemistry together, which makes Bick and Leslie’s whirlwind romance believable.
Leslie is not afraid to speak her mind by first telling Bick how the U.S. stole Texas from Mexico and then asking if he’s married. This angers Bick and we get an amusing shot of him glaring at Leslie while she playfully chews on a piece of bacon, pretending to ignore him. After exchanging longing glances between each other while looking at the horse he just bought, it is obvious that they are madly in love.
They are soon married and she goes back with him to Texas. They arrive on his land and Stevens does a wonderful job capturing the epic grandeur of Texas as he shows Bick and Leslie driving home through an expansive, desolate landscape in a long shot that makes their car look so small in comparison to the spread of barren land. We also get the first real indication of the rampant racism inherent in the state when Bick casually criticizes a Mexican man at the train station. A few minutes later, Bick refers to his Mexican maids as “those people” and chastises Leslie for simply asking them their names and being nice. Elizabeth Taylor radiates warmth and decency as Leslie doesn’t quite understand Bick and his older sister Luz’s (Mercedes McCambridge) attitude towards Mexicans.
Stevens gives James Dean’s Jett Rink a wordless introduction, letting the actor express himself through his laconic posture. Not surprisingly, Dean makes an instant impact when Jett meets Bick and Leslie, getting into an argument with the former and then shyly extending his hand to the latter before awkwardly withdrawing it and leaving.
Stevens uses the Benedict picnic to give us a slice-of-life look at Texan culture with an emphasis on its cuisine and the weather, which Leslie hasn’t adapted to yet but she’s a quick learner and acclimatizes herself to their way of life much to the chagrin of Luz who feels threatened by the new young bride. Stevens also gives us a window into how a cattle ranch is run, including the branding of calves and some of the environmental dangers, like rattlesnakes.
Realizing that Leslie doesn’t share the same views about Mexicans that Bick does, Jett takes her to the impoverished slums where they live and Stevens shows rundown shacks and hovels populated with sick children and a decent-sized graveyard located in the middle that is a real eye-opener for her (and us). This scene must’ve come as quite a revelation for American audiences in 1956 as racism wasn’t depicted so openly in mainstream Hollywood movies.
The earliest indication we get of the coming oil boom is at Luz’s funeral when a neighboring family tells Leslie how they struck it rich thanks to finding oil on their land. In her will, Luz leaves a small amount of land to Jett. He epitomizes the self-made man by starting off with almost nothing and becoming very wealthy when he discovers oil on his land in a scene that is paid homage to in There Will Be Blood. Like Daniel Plainview in Anderson’s film, Jett starts off with one oil well and builds a vast empire, becoming a ruthlessly rich man, much to Bick’s annoyance who harbors bitter resentment over failing to acquire such oil-rich land while he stubbornly continues on with his cattle ranch. Stevens shows how this wealth corrupts Jett, bringing out his worst tendencies, causing one of Bick’s friends to say, “Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill.”
The years pass and Bick and Leslie have children and watch them grow up while they get older and become domesticated homebodies, sleeping in separate beds – a shadow of their younger, vibrant selves. Jett continually attempts to buy Bick’s ranch in order to expand his oil empire and to stick it to the man he used to work for when they were younger. The aging makeup on Dean, Hudson and Taylor isn’t all that realistic-looking but does just enough to not be distracting either. The actors compensate by the way in which they carry themselves and act, even altering the way they talk in subtle ways.
“You are an odd one, aren’t you, Jett?” Leslie says to him at one point and it could sum up his character and Dean’s Method performance, which is in sharp contrast to the classically trained Hudson and Taylor. It is all the little, eccentric flourishes that Dean makes, like the way he tilts his cowboy hat forward on his head or his disjointed way of speaking that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. One feels that he’s working off instinct and living in the moment and it sets him apart, much like Jett from the rest of the characters.
Rock Hudson isn’t afraid to play a man who is a product of his environment and with that comes a racist attitude towards Mexicans. Bick is also a questionable father, forcing his little boy to ride a pony when the child is clearly terrified of doing so. He gets his child-rearing skills from his strict father and is obviously more skilled at ranching. Bick ends up a bitter old man while Jett is a pathetic old drunk. However, the former learns to be more tolerant of Mexicans, even getting into a fight with the owner of a diner who insults his Mexican daughter-in-law and refuses to serve a Mexican family that comes in. Even though Bick loses the brawl, his willingness to fight for the rights of other shows how far he’s come since the beginning of the film.
Elizabeth Taylor plays a character full of life and the actress absolutely radiates unbridled energy that is infectious. She delivers a charismatic performance that is riveting to watch. Leslie is a progressive character that addresses the sexist attitudes of the times in which she lives, in particular Texas, in a tense scene in which she insists on listening in on Bick and his friends talk politics, much to his chagrin as she makes him look bad in front of them. He believes that women should know their place and it’s implied that it is at home cooking and raising children, which doesn’t sit too well with her. If she is supposed to know her place at home then she finds other ways to make a difference, like bringing in a doctor to improve the health conditions in the Mexican village.
Two of Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) co-stars – Dennis Hopper and Sal Mineo – make memorable appearances with the former as Bick’s rebellious grown-up son and who has a fantastic scene with Hudson late in the film where the two men have it out, and the latter delivering a wordless performance as a wide-eyed local boy that goes off to meet his tragic fate in World War II.
Edna Ferber’s Giant was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal before Doubleday published it in the fall of 1952. It depicted the turbulent lives of three generations of a Texas family and proved to be very popular if not somewhat controversial with its depiction of racial tensions and an interracial marriage. Naturally, Hollywood came calling. After all, they had already adapted ten of her books.
Initially, Ferber kept the studios at arm’s length and this tactic backfired when they began to lose interest. Not filmmaker George Stevens who was intrigued by the controversy around the novel and felt it was ripe for a cinematic treatment. He was also drawn to its love story: “So many of our romantic pictures just lead up to the altar and leave you with a general assumption of inevitable happiness. But this is a story about the hazards of the marriage relationship.”
Stevens teamed up with producer Henry Ginsberg who made an offer to Ferber for the movie rights to Giant in December 1952. Ginsberg decided to form a production company with Stevens and Ferber to produce and distribute adaptations of the latter’s works starting with Giant. The next challenge was to find a studio to bankroll it. Shane had not yet been released and Stevens was considered something of a commercial risk. That is, until Shane was released and became a critical and commercial hit. Warner Bros. agreed to back it, advertise and also distribute it in December 1953. The budget was set at $1.5 million.
When it came to the screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, Ferber was quite critical of it, giving Stevens notes about various drafts that were largely ignored. She wrote to Stevens, “I want to only say this: I know nothing about the making of motion pictures. I know about writing. I know about dialogue, characterization, situation…As a writer, I find some of the Giant speeches wooden, unvital, and uncharacteristic.” She offered to write a draft and flew to Los Angeles on June 20, 1954, working a six-day-a-week schedule with Stevens, Guiol and Moffat. She finished her draft on August 8 and Stevens ended up using the script that he, Guiol and Moffat wrote instead.
When it came to casting, Stevens initially toyed with Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Even though he didn’t resemble Bick, Rock Hudson wanted badly to play the role. Stevens’ secretary told her boss to screen a small Western that Hudson had made that required him to age. Stevens did so and was impressed, casting Hudson without even meeting him! However, the actor was under contract with Universal Studios who refused to lend him out. Hudson fought the studio and won out.
Stevens felt that Elizabeth Taylor was too young for the part of Leslie and approached Hepburn who turned him down. Stevens briefly considered the likes of Grace Kelly, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth and many others. He really wanted Kelly but MGM refused to loan her out. Once she heard that Kelly wasn’t available, Taylor begged MGM to loan her out and pursued the role, eventually winning Stevens over. Over the course of the film, the actress would befriend Hudson and Dean, staying close to the former for the rest of his life.
For Jett Rink, Stevens wanted Robert Mitchum but he had a conflict with another project. He considered Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger and Montgomery Clift among others. Dean was friends with Guiol and got into the habit of hanging around Stevens’ office. The director felt that the actor didn’t physically resemble the character but was swayed by Dean’s skill as an actor.
Principal photography began on May 19, 1955 on a 77-day schedule in Charlottesville, Virginia where the scenes that involved Bick and Leslie meeting and falling in love were filmed. From there, the production moved to Marfa, Texas with a crew of 250 people descending on the small town. To drum up word of mouth about the film, Stevens allowed the public to watch filming with an average of 300 onlookers during the week and 700-1,000 on weekends.
It soon became evident that the estimated $1.5 million budget would not be enough, nor would the proposed schedule. The budget was increased to $2.5 million with 35 days added (the eventual budget was $5.4 million). Due to the nature and scale of the film as well as Stevens’ habit of shooting too much footage, by the end of June the production was eight days behind schedule and $200,000 over budget. Where did the money go? In ambitious shots like a massive herd of Longhorn cattle. Stevens’ scouts managed to find the nearly extinct breed and shipped them all to Marfa at a considerable cost. The façade of the Benedict house was built in Hollywood and shipped to Marfa on flatcars. It was erected in the corner of the Worth Evans ranch.
To make matters worse, Taylor was frequently ill and studio executives became so worried about these delays that they considered taking the film away from Stevens. Dean and Stevens had a turbulent relationship with the actor refusing to hit the marks that the director wanted him to and defiant acts like showing up late for filming or sometimes not at all. This tested Stevens’ patience but fortunately Dean was doing brilliant work in the role. After Marfa, all the interior scenes were shot on soundstages at the Warner studio back in Hollywood with filming ending on September 30, 1955. The most unfortunate incident that plagued the production was when Dean was killed in a car accident before the film was released. All of his scenes had been filmed but one was inaudible and needed to be looped in post-production. His former roommate and best friend Nick Adams was hired to loop Dean’s dialogue.
We watch Bick, Leslie and Jett grow up and it’s fascinating to see how they’ve changed towards the end of the film from how they were when we first met them. One gets the feeling that their lives hadn’t quite turned out as they imagined they would. Sure, they have vast wealth and large families but are they truly happy?
Giant is an epic saga about the dark side of the American dream and how one man (Jett) comes to embody it and another man (Bick) is embittered by it. Stevens’ film spans decades as it chronicles the lives of three people through good and bad times, through the birth of children and the death of a dear friend. The film is both intimate and epic in the sense that it depicts their personal lives on a large scale with the sweep of American history as the backdrop. It is as much a story about America as it is about these people as they are part of the country’s very fabric.
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle, a Biography. Applause Books. 2000.
Hyam, Joe with Jay Hyam. James Dean: Little Boy Lost. Warner Books. 1992.
Kelley, Kitty. Elizabeth Taylor, the Last Star. Simon & Schuster. 1981.
Moss, Marilyn Ann. Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film. University of Wisconsin Press. 2015.
Rosenfield, John. “Texas-Sized Giant.” Southwest Review. Autumn 1956.