Giant belongs to the Hollywood era that saw the release of films such as The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, War and Peace, and The King and 1 all in the same year. Emphasis was on spectacle, grandeur, extravagance, and length. Producer/director George Stevens, in keeping with the trend, ambitiously attempted to film a great American epic from Edna Ferber's sprawling best seller about a colorful, land-rich Texas family. The film's mixed critical reviews did not prevent its commercial success and kudos for individual performances and Stevens' overall work in the film. Some skeptical critics attributed the film's success to the last performance of James Dean, who became an object of adulation after his death in a fiery car crash. Dean portrayed Jett Rink, one of the three central, characters in this saga that covers approximately twenty-five years of American, and especially Texan history.
Before Jett Rink is introduced, the two other central characters meet, fall in love, and set the stage for their future conflicts. The film opens with Texas cattle baron Bick Benedict, played with authority by Rock Hudson, being out of his element in Maryland, in the elegant, cultured society of the prominent Maryland surgeon, Dr. Horace Lynnton, whose prize stallion Bick has come to purchase. While visiting the Lynntons, he meets their lovely daughter Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Although Bick and Leslie sense an immediate attraction to each other, their totally dissimilar natures and backgrounds spark some spirited and lively scenes. Leslie Lynnton is the despair of her social-climbing mother because she has a sharp mind and a tongue to match. Mrs. Lynnton fears that Leslie, although she is engaged, may never marry the "right" husband. Bick is attracted to Leslie but is totally immersed in his ranch and completely convinced of the greatness of the Texas way of life. When Leslie tries to discuss certain controversial points of Texas history, such as how the•arge landowners obtained their vast holdings, Bick's response is hardly polite. Key areas of conflict are identified early in the film, even during this courtship stage, and foreshadow the power struggles and troubles to come.
These opening Maryland scenes are photographed in bright colors amid lush surroundings. There are shots of the green, rolling, fox-hunting country of Maryland, detailed close-ups of the lavish life style of the Lynntons, and lingering close-ups of the attractive Bick and Leslie as they fall in love. Stevens is painstaking in portraying small, sensitive details.
The scene now changes. Mr. and Mrs. Bick Benedict and the prize stallion, War Winds, are off to Texas to Bick's massive ranch, Reata, and to a bout of culture shock for the former Leslie Lynnton. Again, differences between Bick and Leslie are shown in Leslie's gracious greeting of a Mexican youth who has come to meet them at the train station. Bick tells her that she should not make such a fuss over a Mexican boy. They have their first quarrel as man and wife, but are reconciled on the drive to their home, which is a memorable visual experience. In contrast to the green, lush countryside of Leslie's Maryland home, Texas is introduced desolately as the speeding car kicks' up the brown-gray dust for mile after mile of the vast, treeless ranch until the stark Gothic outline of the Big House emerges above horizon.
Leslie is the outsider now. She must grapple with a new set of customs, beliefs, and people. First, there is Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), Bick's spinster older sister who finds it impossible to relinquish her tightly held rein on the Big House and on her younger brother. Luz is cordial to Leslie but treats her as a guest rather than as the new mistress of Reata. Other people whom Leslie meets are friends and neighboring ranchers. Leslie, who has spent her mature life engaging in adult conversations with men such as her father and other cultivated society folk, now is part of a completely different society. In Texas, the men talk only to other men about substantive matters. The women spend idle lives filled with shopping, endless coffee-klatching, and frivolous gossip. The prime example is Vashti (Jane Withers), the bulky awkward daughter of the neighboring ranch owner, who had hoped to land the dashing Bick and who marries one of her father's ranch hands out of spite.
Leslie's liberal instincts are stimulated by the plight of the Mexicans on the ranch and in the surrounding community. Her attempts to aid them only arouse Bick's anger, and this prejudice shown early in the film eventually will build to a climax in which Bick must come to terms with his own weaknesses and complacency.
The presence of the swaggering wrangler, Jett Rink (James Dean), adds a dimension of menace to the plot. The Benedicts of Reata are the "haves"; the insecure, upwardly striving, threatening Jett is a "have not." In his early scenes as a sullen ranch hand, he conveys an adulterous lust for Leslie, an arrogant hostility towards his employer Bick, and the hint of an unhealthy relationship with Luz. Jett's interference in Benedict affairs causes Luz, who is feeling spurned by her brother, to ride out in a fury on the stallion, War Winds. She suffers a fatal fall, and in a rage Bick runs Jett off the ranch. Luz, however, has Willed Jett a seemingly worthless bit of land on the ranch and Jett will be heard from again. James Dean's performance, straight method acting, is photographed almost entirely in shadows. Together, Stevens and Dean have captured a sense of dramatic unity.
After Luz's death, a pattern of living emerges for Bick and Leslie. The slow pace is one method Stevens uses to reinforce his vision of reality. He wants to convey the feeling of twenty-five years slowly passing, of the adtustments and responses to change that his characters must make. Bick and Leslie become the parents of a son, Jordy (Dennis Hopper), and two daughters, Judy (Fran Bennett) and Luz (Carroll Baker), after her aunt. Now a new generation of Benedicts must deal with the conflicting values of their parents: Bick, who lives for the ranch and his traditions, and Leslie, still the liberal, fighting for causes and trying to impose some elegance and taste on the bleak Texas atmosphere.
Young Jordy, the pride and hope of his father, shows a marked distaste for the life of a rancher. In temperament, he takes after his mother, and, as he grows up, he longs to be a doctor. Jordy's twin sister Judy is a disappointment first to her mother for her tomboy ways, and, later, to her father for her growing attachment to an experimental farmer named Bob Dietz (Earl Holliman), whom she eventually marries. More arguments occur between Leslie and Bick as their preconceived expectations for the children do not take into account that they are individuals with individual needs and desires. Even Leslie becomes narrow-minded as she insists on molding her daughters into unsuitable, unwanted roles.
Part of the pattern of Texas living is the old cattle aristocracy making way for the new oil rich. In some of the most carefully crafted scenes in the film, Stevens shows Jett Rink's financial rise. Jett's character develops as Stevens portrays his enthusiasm in working his own piece of land. Jett at last has something that belongs to him, and he feverishly works his "worthless" land for oil harder than he ever worked for the Benedicts. At last, his gusher comes in, and a rapturous Jett is drenched by the black gold. His tie to the Benedicts, part resentment, part envy, and part desire to show off to Leslie,prompts him to race over to the Big House where the Benedicts are enter¬taining. Smirking over his success, he becomes a bit too familiar with Leslie, which causes Bick to strike him. Jett recovers quickly, delivers a sharp blow in return, and then furiOusly rides off.
Jett's increasing wealth and power in the state are often discussed by the other characters. Years later, still crude and insecure in spite of his wealth, he is back on the scene trying to woo young Luz. He has planned a huge party to celebrate the grand opening of one of his hotels. All Texas society, new and old, feels obliged to attend, including the Benedicts, despite their aversion to Jett. Dr. Jordan Benedict III and his Mexican wife Juana (Elsa Cardenas) make the trip, as well as graying Bick and Leslie. The Bob Dietzes and their young child are the only family members who do not attend the great affair. Juana has made an appointment with the hotel's beauty parlor under the name Mrs. Jordan Benedict. When she arrives, she is told that Mexicans are not served. She calls Jordy, who demolishes the beauty parlor in a rage and proceeds to the big banquet hall for a confrontation with Jett. Jett is surrounded by bodyguards who hold Jordy down for Jett's attack in front of a crowd of people which includes the other Benedicts. Bick, in spite of his conflicting emotions, rises to defend his son, and he too is felled by Jett.
Drunk and despondent over his failed attempt to impress Texas society, Jett has a touching scene in which he makes a pathetic speech to the deserted banquet hall. The speech is overheard by Luz, who earlier had defended Jett in defiance of her parents. Now at last she realizes that in Jett's eyes she is no more than a substitute for her mother.
After the disastrous banquet, Bick and Leslie drive Juana and her young son back to the ranch. They stop at a roadside restaurant where once again Juana is refused service. All the years of Bick's prejudice and conservatism now intermingle with his sense of family pride and Leslie's liberal influence. He engages in a wild brawl with the restaurant owner, amid the strains of the film's popular ballad "The Yellow Rose of Texas." The film ends back at Reata where Bick and Leslie compromise their old positions and look to their two grandchildren, one half Mexican, the other a blond toddler, to bring about needed changes and social justice.
A major criticism of Giant is that the film, like the Edna Ferber novel, has no focus, that it has combined melodramatic themes of family conflict, the alien outsider, and racial prejudice, without any true resolution. Another criticism is that the disdain for the crass, bigoted, materialistic society on the move is not balanced by a sensitive understanding of the individual moti¬vations of the people in that society. These points may be valid, or only partially so; but such deficiencies are redeemed by the strengths of George Stevens' work. He is able to elicit more than competent performances from Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, especially before they are required to age. James Dean ended his career with a stunning characterization that received almost universal praise. Dean, Rock Hudson, and Mercedes Mc-Cambridge received Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations, respectively. Other nominees from the film were Dmitri Tiomkin for the scoring; William Hornbeck, Philip W. Anderson, and Fred Bohanen for film editing; Ralph S. Hurst for art and set decoration; Moss Mabry and Marjorie Best for costume design; and Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat for the screenplay.
Despite its faulty plot, George Stevens is able to bring to this film a visual sweep, careful attention to sound, and many striking small touches. Examples of Stevens' sensitive direction include the shot of the drunken Jett walking to the dais at his banquet, the beautifully framed long shot of the horse that has just thrown Luz on her return to Reata, and the warm pillow-talk conversations between Bick and Leslie. For his efforts in delineating a sensitive landscape of the human condition, Stevens the producer received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and won the Best Director Award for 1956.