With a running time of three hours and eighteen minutes, telling a story that spans forty years, and featuring the vast sweeping plains of Texas, Giant is a giant film.
Giant was one of the more successful films of 1956, and was nominated for a number of awards. Leonard Maltin lists the Academy Award nominations for Giant:
The film received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (James Dean, Rock Hudson), Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Art Direction, Color (Boris Leven and Ralph S. Hurst), Costume Design, Color, (Moss Mabry and Marjorie Best), Film Editing (William Hornbeck, Philip W. Anderson and Fred Bohanan), Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Dmitri Tiomkin), Best Adapted Screenplay (Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat) and Best Picture. George Stevens won the award for Best Direction.
Giant is an inter-generational family saga based on a best-selling 1952 potboiler by Edna Ferber. What Jonathan Yardley calls “a withering satire of Texas nouveau riche” in oil-booming Texas, became, in the film, much more concerned with national issues such as racism and civil rights.
This reflects changes in the United States post-1952, most notably the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott, which went on for most of 1956 (the year Giant was made), and galvanized the civil rights movement, making boycott-leader Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure.
Two other prominent films from 1956, All That Heaven Allows (dir. Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson) and The Searchers (dir. John Ford) deal with tolerance of class and racial difference.
The October 10, 1956 Hollywood Reporter review stated that, due to its portrayal of race, the film “has the drumbeat of contemporary history,” and the Daily Variety review noted that Giant demonstrates how racism against Mexicans in the Southwest is “as bad, and as wrong, as the Negro’s situation in the Deep South and elsewhere.”
H. Wayne Schuth says of Giant:
Giant is a serious picture about accepting the differences of others, be they outsiders, members of one’s own culture, or even members of one’s own family. It reflects social concerns in America at the time as well as predicting, in a way, the challenges of the civil rights movement to come. The film also contains the idea that people who have prejudices must change to accept and respect others, regardless of their race, background, and circumstances.
Andrew Urban adds that “the film was completed in 1956, which makes its racial stand revolutionary in its time. The fact that the story embraces a repressed romance and a partial socio-historic documentation of Texas itself, makes the film complex and intriguing.”
The racial issues are embodied by the “conservative” westerner Jordan “Bick” Benedict and his “liberal” easterner wife Leslie Benedict. Bick is intolerant of Mexicans and Chicanos (Mexican-Americans), who he calls “wetbacks,” including those who work his ranch. Leslie, from the moment she steps into the dust of Texas, shows compassion for Chicanos, and finds a doctor to save the life of baby Angel Obregon, and his mother (but Leslie can’t save Angel from World War II). The next generation in the family tends towards Leslie’s side in the debate. Young Jordy (Jordan Benedict III) not only sympathizes with the Chicanos, but marries a Mexican-American woman and dedicates himself, as a doctor, to healing his wife’s people.
Urban credits Bick Benedict for his strength and determination, but then adds:
The strength and determination of Bick Benedict is also a symbol of all that was wrong with Texas and the U.S. in the 1950s and before; swaggering and chauvinistic not to mention racist and exploitative. Leslie is the figure of a new tolerance and compassion sweeping the West as a prelude to the 60s, and the film’s final shot reminds me of the best intentions of the famous Benetton ads, in which all colours of mankind grow up together – and tolerant of each other. You could say that this was made in the old Hollywood, when not only were the studio bosses storytellers and filmmakers, but they admired and promoted the finer aspects of human nature.
James Berardinelli says that “Leslie is a liberated free-thinker and, although Bick captures her love in the first reel, it takes the entire film before he earns her respect by recognizing that Mexican Americans deserve to be treated as human beings.”
But racism is not the only controversial topic explored by the film. Glenn Heath Jr. reports that
Topics as diverse as capitalism, land ownership, sexuality, interracial coupling, racism, and alcoholism define the lives of Bick and Leslie, not to mention their offspring, friends, and enemies. With this many issues brimming beneath the dusty wind-swept Texas landscape, there’s a palpable uneasiness to almost every character’s tortured existence. This is most noticeable in the lowly ranch hand turned billionaire oil tycoon Jett Rink, who, as played by James Dean, looks as if he were constantly trying to find comfort in his own skin.
It’s the discussion of capitalism that concerns Heath:
The little moments matter in Giant, a film that despite its title, running time, and girth, values a return to a smaller worldview, especially in its scathing indictment of modern day capitalism. “Big stuff is old stuff,” one character says. Yet, when it comes to emotional expression, the inverse is true. Giant firmly understands the need to destroy those social limitations put upon by bigotry,
hate, and class division.
As I (and some of you) noted last Wednesday, when we discussed Giant, the film went beyond the examination of racial and class division to explore other, similar divisions.
Leslie Benedict is not just a crusader for Chicanos; she’s also a crusader for women’s rights. Coming from a liberal family “out east,” from affluent Maryland horse country, Leslie is also a somewhat strident spokesperson for equality between the sexes. A number of times in the film – particularly when she gives her “cave men” speech near the half-way point of the film – Leslie refuses to keep to her place and complains about the sexist attitude of the men of Texas. (And yet Leslie makes no sisterly overtures to Bick’s sister Luz; instead she takes charge and, inadvertently, initiates Luz’s death).
There is also the generational conflict between Bick and Leslie and their (sometimes wayward) children. Bick and Leslie were born in the nineteenth century and raised in the early twentieth; their children were born during the twentieth century and raised during the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II of the 1940s, and the economic boom on the 1950s. Bick has the most trouble with the young folks, fruitlessly trying to find someone to take over the ranch (Reata). Leslie, the icon of tolerance in Giant, is ever-accepting and summarizes her point of view when she says: “All you can do is raise them; you can’t live their lives for them.”
Just as the civil rights theme in the film is, in effect, “ripped from the headlines” of 1956, so too the generational conflict. Film scholars note that it was in the 1950s that the national film audience in the United States began to trend teen-ward. Teenagers became the biggest demographic, in terms of ticket sales, in the 1950s. This is still true: the most lucrative movie market today is young teen-age boys.
Ironically, Dennis Hopper, the actor who played young Jordan III, the crusading doctor, became a symbol of intergenerational conflict and mistrust in the late 1960s, when he directed the counter-culture classic Easy Rider. By that time, Hopper, well into his thirties, became the symbol of rebellious youth and exemplified the phrase “don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
Much can also be said of the conflict between East and West in Giant. This was a common conflict in film Westerns, following the “Frontier thesis” of the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued that the settlement of the American West was largely a matter of East-West migration. Giant undermines this thesis in that it’s only partially about East-West relations. North-South relations, the conflict between a more industrial United States and a rural Mexico, is much more pertinent in Giant.
Bridging a century and a country, Culturally, Giant is a very important film. Artistically, particularly in the acting, Giant is also an important film. I will explore this in another blog entry.
University of Maryland
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“Review of Giant (DVD)”
“Review of Giant (DVD)“
Glenn Heath Jr.
Not Coming to a Theater Near You
“Overview of Giant”
Review of Giant
H. Wayne Schuth
“Review of Giant (DVD)”
Andrew L. Urban
“Ferber’s ‘Giant,’ Cut Down to Size”
The Washington Post
May 8, 2006