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Featuring three great stars at the peak of their careers – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean - and a legendary director – George Stevens - who won an Oscar for the film, Giant (1956) is now available on DVD (with a disc-full of extra features). Nick Roddick gets all nostalgic about a movie that really is like they don't make 'em any more.

Normally, if I was going to write an article in praise of a classic film, I'd rent the film on video (or, more likely these days, buy it on DVD) and watch it again to refresh my memory. Not with Giant. I don't need to. Every scene, almost every image of its three-and-a-quarter hours running time is burned into my memory.

Rock Hudson towering over the other guests at the Lynnton Thanksgiving dinner at the beginning; the kids crying when they realise the turkey they are eating is a former family pet; the Benedict car uncoupled from the train and left standing in a siding in the middle of a bleak Texas plain when the couple return to Reata after the wedding… And James Dean - sitting, hat tipped forward, in his wreck of a car, or covered in oil from the gusher that will make him rich, or pulling down the shelves in his drunken fury at the end of the film... Just a couple of bars from Dimitri Tiomkin's sweeping score can reduce me to jelly.

Giant occupies a special moment in my discovery of cinema. I would never claim it was one of the best films ever made, but it features in my top 10 favourite movies because it turned me on, aged 11, to the epic scope of which Hollywood was capable and to the epic landscapes of the American southwest, both of which I still love to this day.

"one of those watershed moments in Hollywood history"

Giant, I later discovered, came at one of those watershed moments in Hollywood history when the power of the studio system could briefly be combined with the single-minded determination of a great director - and George Stevens was certainly great and just as certainly single-minded, insisting that all his stars remain on location throughout Giant's 16-week shoot (James Dean was far from happy) and paying meticulous attention to every small detail of setting, costume and performance. He even, according to one source, chose the cattle.

Not surprisingly, the film's budget more than tripled during shooting, from an already (in 1956 terms) massive $1.5 million to over $5 million in production costs alone. But, even in financial terms, the dedication paid off: Giant remained Warner Bros' top-grossing film of all time for 14 years, until it was knocked off its perch in 1970 by Superman. It also got 10 Oscar nominations - but picked up only one Award: for Stevens as best director.

By then, of course, Dean was already dead, killed when his Porsche Spyder collided head-on with a station wagon driven by Earl Turnupseed on the afternoon of September 30, 1955, at the bottom of a long hill some 40 miles east of Bakersfield, California.

The story of Giant is that of a family and, through that family, of a state. In the thirties, Texas cattle baron Bick Benedict (Hudson) woos Eastern girl Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) and brings her home to his ranch, Reata. It is a culture shock for her - one of the strengths of Giant is the effortless way it establishes that the gap between Texas and Virginia is far greater than that between most nations. Bick, too, finds it hard to adjust to his new wife, her more liberal attitudes and, above all, the radical changes that his life undergoes when former Reata ranch-hand Jett Rink (Dean) strikes oil on a corner of property left to him by Bick's sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). By the final act of the film, when Bick and Leslie are in their 50s, Texas is oil country and Jett is one of its richest men.

The film focuses on the conflicts within the family - Luz dies as a more or less direct result of her brother's marriage (after a family row, she disobeys him and rides out on the stallion he had gone to Virginia to buy when he met Leslie) - and between Bick and Jett. There are also the tensions that develop between Bick and the next generation of Benedicts, which mirror the racial and other tensions that simmered to the surface in Texas in the years after World War II. Giant is an epic conception in every sense.

"based on a doorstep of a novel"

Stevens, of course, didn't dream the whole thing up: the film is based on a doorstep of a novel by Edna Ferber, the James Michener of her day, which dealt with the development of the Lone Star State from the heyday of the cattle barons through to the (then) present-day oil business. Ferber was fascinated by Texans - "a curious mix of gentleness and violence, of hospitality and arrogance," she wrote - and didn't dodge the issues of male chauvinism and racism which give Giant its unique flavour.
Bick is a gentle giant of a man, but his views on a woman's place are closer to the 19th than to the 20th century. And the views of post-war Anglo-Saxon Texans with regard to the state's Hispanic population would not have seemed out of place in Little Rock, Arkansas, a decade later.

This depiction of their state didn't make Giant popular in Texas. Ferber received death threats, and her publishers cashed in: 'Praise in 48 states - Damned in Texas!' ran one slogan.

Stevens, however, resisted all pressure to shoot in the San Fernando valley which has stood in for most parts of the West, (including the Waltons' mountain): the Virginia scenes would be shot in Virginia, he decreed, the Texas scenes in Texas.
Nor did the reaction to the book seem in any way to affect the enthusiasm with which the small Texas town of Marfa welcomed Hudson, Taylor, Dean, Stevens and the rest in the summer of 1955. Six hundred visitors showed up on set most days, and Stevens threw screenings of the dailies open to the local population (who soon learned that dailies are not the most exciting thing in the world). Every cinema for miles around was showing Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor seasons.

By the time he had finished, Stevens had shot for 114 days, 21 of them after Dean's death. Posthumously, the latter received one of the film's two Best Actor nominations (Hudson got the other) and there is every sign that he could have gone on to a career much more mainstream than that offered him by his first two starring roles in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden (only the first of which had been released when Stevens cast him in Giant).

Hudson, meanwhile, was also a rising star and had to hustle to get the role (for which the director had previously considered John Wayne, Clark Gable, Sterling Hayden and Gregory Peck), renewing his contract with Universal for a further four years to get the loan-out he needed to make Giant. Few would deny it was worth it: Giant ranks, along with the two films he made with Douglas Sirk, among his finest performances.

Likewise Taylor, who was already a major star and who had worked with Stevens four years earlier on A Place in the Sun. Her contract with MGM meant that Jack Warner had to do a deal: if that studio would let him use Taylor, he would agree to loan out Dean to MGM for Somebody Up There Likes Me - which, as I am sure you all know, was the movie that launched Paul Newman's career. Giant was a turning-point in a lot of lives other than mine.

"it's always most interesting when you're not sure where you're going."

As for Stevens, life after the Texas epic lived up to his own predictions. "It's a journey and it's always most interesting when you're not sure where you're going," he once said.

A few years later, he would embark on the gruelling, troubled five-year shoot of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a film whose epic ambitions far exceeded those of Giant, but whose end-result fell far short.

Giant was re-released on its 40th anniversary in 1996, with restoration work on the soundtrack supervised by George Stevens Jr, the director's son, who has made a number of much-praised documentaries about his father's work. And it screened in Cannes this year (2003) in tribute to its one surviving star's (Elizabeth Taylor) dedication to amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, as part of the Cinema Against Aids event. 

Published August 7, 2003

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Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant


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