I grew up during the heyday of the “TV event” miniseries – those big overwrought TV movies, usually told in four or five one-hour episodes, and usually based on equally-big popular novels. They often followed a single family’s story across several years and a couple generations, or the tragic (always tragic) years-long love story between a doomed couple. Or changes in financial fortune, due to lightning-quick lucky breaks or a vengeful sabotage. The tropes in these series became so consistent that a few years back, a team made a spoof miniseries starting Kristen Wiig and Tobey Maguire, and it was popular enough to inspire a sequel. ….I was usually too young for any of them, but remember the TV ads breathlessly promoting them all, turning up again and again.
Which is why even though I’ve never seen Giant before, it felt strangely familiar. It ticks several of the same trope boxes – the decades-long scope, the focus on a single family and their children, the unrequited love that fuels one man’s greed. Even a final grudge-settling battle between rivals. But where those miniseries seemed bombastic, here they felt…compelling. I joked to Roommate Russ that Giant was to be commended for actually taking those tropes and “doing them right.”
The family in question is the Benedicts, a wealthy Texas ranch family currently helmed by Jordan Jr. (Rock Hudson). He makes a journey to Maryland to buy a horse, but also discovers Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the horse owner’s comely daughter, and returns to Texas with both. It’s a bumpy transition for Leslie – Jordan has some, er, archaic views of womens’ roles in society, and has some deep-seated prejudices against the Mexican farmhands working the ranch. But Leslie’s spirited challenges serve to change the status quo (somewhat) and charm Jordan even more.
They also charm Jett (James Dean), a hired-hand on the ranch. Jett is a bit of a slacker when we first meet him, but is under the wing of Jordan’s boss-lady sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) so Jordan can’t fire him. But when Luz is killed in an accident, she leaves a corner of the ranch to Jett in her will. It’s poor grazing ground, and Jordan wants him gone, so he offers to buy it off him in cash instead. But Jett stubbornly stays – and discovers the patch is rich in oil. It’s Jett’s chance to make something of himself – to prove he’s just as good as that fancy Jordan Benedict. And to impress Leslie. Or maybe one of their daughters….
The plot is super-soapy. But that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would have done. Perhaps because director George Stevens handles them far more subtly than something like The Thorn Birds would have done – the story just unfolds, and Stevens doesn’t weigh scenes down with a lot of Dramatic Significance. The three leads also turn in some top-notch performances, sometimes underplaying big moments; there’s a scene where Leslie and Jordan are going through a rough patch and discuss a trial separation, and it’s a remarkably understated scene. No one screams, no one cries, there are no dramatic shots. Instead it’s quiet and tense, played simply, and lets the inherent drama of the moment speak for itself.
Stevens also sets up the shots really well. We don’t even see Jordan’s ranch until after we’ve seen Leslie’s home in Virginia – the lush green hills, her cozy (and a bit stuffy) old Colonial house a bit overstuffed with toile and antiques. Our first sight of Jordan’s ranch house is when Leslie sees it – a big mansion sitting all alone in the middle of a huge empty field, blasted brown by the hot sun. That mansion also undergoes some subtle changes over the years, reflecting Leslie’s influence – but they just happen, and we never see Leslie pleading with Jordan that “couldn’t we please take down that old portrait of your daddy” or whatever. Stevens also uses several shots that shrink people down in the landscape – or sometimes shrink things down, as in this iconic screenshot with Jett; sometimes they fortell someone’s shift in fortune, as with this clue that Jett’s influence is soon to become very big indeed.
Also, interestingly, while the characters all grow over the course of the film, they don’t necessarily finish growing. Jordan’s changing attitude towards Mexican-Americans is a subplot throughout, his dismissive prejudice at the top of the film challenged both by Leslie’s outreach to their community and by his grown son (Dennis Hopper) marrying a Mexican woman. A late scene sees Jordan starting a fistfight with a diner cook who refuses to serve his daughter-in-law – but a couple scenes later, he confesses to Leslie that he’s still wrapping his head around the fact that one of his grandkids is Hispanic. Jordan has not had the kind of miraculous shift in mindset a lesser film would have given him, where he’s completely cured of his racism. But – he has changed, and is continuing to change. It’s a process, it’s heading in the right direction, and it’s going to continue after the movie ends.
The miniseries of the 70s and 80s gave me the feeling they would bore me silly. But if they had been filmed like this, I may have watched a few.