★★★★ / ★★★★
Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a cattle rancher who owns 695,000 acres of land in Texas, visits Maryland to buy a horse named War Winds from Dr. Lynnton (Paul Fix). Bick gets more than he bargains for when he meets opinionated, funny, fiery Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the seller’s eldest daughter. Before Bick returns to Texas, he and Leslie get married. This does not sit well with Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), because she feels threatened of the prospect that another woman will take control of the mansion and introduce change.
“Giant,” written by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, is a sprawling epic that elegantly tells the story of a Texan family spanning about thirty years. It argues that those who remain obdurate in the comfortable confines of traditionalism have no place in the constantly evolving modern American society.
This is reflected in several ways. The racism by Texans toward Mexicans is a constant struggle between husband and wife, the Benedicts’ children (Dennis Hopper, Fran Bennett, Carroll Baker) rebelling against their parents’ wishes from career path to who they are allowed to date or marry, and “old” money, like the Benedicts, versus “new” money, like Jett Rink (James Dean), Bick’s former aide in the ranch. As we journey through the years, the layers of complexity pile on top of one another, sometimes piercing through and unfortunate decisions of the past pave a way for years of ill-will and resentment.
The Benedict household is not always happy but it is strong. We see Leslie and Bick engage in ugly confrontations about who has power over whom. Bick claims that he is in charge, that no one, even his wife, a mere woman, is allowed to control him. Although he is smart and strong, he is rather short-sighted, accustomed to the values passed down from father to son. He fails to realize that their many arguments are not about control but about mutual respect not only between sexes and as people but also between husband and wife, who are supposed to be partners in life.
The schism between man and woman is brilliantly shown in one of the scenes where Leslie wants to listen to her husband and fellow businessmen discuss work and politics. The men want her to fetch coffee as a signal for her to go away for the subject is not considered “appropriate” for her. The women in the room understand the hint and get up willingly, but Leslie will not have any of it. She argues that she is educated and has her own opinion so she should be allowed to partake in the discussion. Given the time of the film’s release, such a scene is progressive. Though traces of such attitudes toward women still remain, most of us can only imagine how much discussion and outrage it must have incited.
The movie’s title is especially appropriate given its more than three-hour running time and scope of ambition. But, more importantly, the word “giant” means something big and powerful, a leader. Bick towers over his wife physically: when he speaks to her, he literally has to look down on her. He is a leader of the “old” days. However, Leslie towers over her husband in small but meaningful ways like showing kindness and sympathy toward people who help them to tend their land and cattle. She is a leader of modern times. “Giant,” based on the novel by Edna Ferber and directed by George Stevens, has a surfeit of symbolism among images and human relationships. It is a soap opera but with cunning intelligence and the things at stake have gravity.