Film Review: “Giant” (1956)

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Wow. Just wow.

Here’s the classic case of an under-appreciated film that deserves a far greater legacy. Nobody seems to talk about it, yet once you give it a viewing you are left scratching your head as to why. Once again, I turn back to one of my greatest sources for film recommendations: B+ Movie Blog and his Oscar quest. A lot of praise was given to this film, as well as the strong directing effort put into crafting it by George Stevens. Had it not been for these little nuggets of praise I would not have felt as eager to check out this movie. Plus they compared it to Gone with the Wind and other epics, and I have started to develop a strong appreciation for the epics.

Lucky for me I caught it airing on television. I missed the first couple minutes, but still was able to record the majority of it (though I ended up renting the film on Amazon solely to see the beginning – which turned out to be the first three minutes only…three dollars down the toilet).

Giant follows one Texan family lead by patriarch Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his wife, Maryland-born Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) over the course of a couple decades. During this time they go through life: share some marital struggles, have children of their own, and watch as their children get married and have children of their own.

There is also the story of Jett Rink (James Dean), who inherits a seemingly cheap and unproductive patch of land on the Benedict estate. He soon realizes that the land he has acquired is teeming with oil, which allows him to go from dirt poor to filthy rich almost immediately. With this change in his lifestyle comes changes to his character as he grows increasingly arrogant and despicable. Rink’s tale becomes a side-story to the Benedicts’, but eventually bleeds back in as Bick and Jet are forced to become business partners despite having a mutual hatred for each other.

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Jett Rink (Dean) arrives oil-soaked to the Benedict’s doorstep eager to brag about his newly-struck wealth to Bick (Hudson). Also watch this scene and try not to picture Matthew McConaughey. Dean looks and sounds surprisingly like him here.

I loved, loved, LOVED this movie. Stevens did a fantastic job giving the film the feeling of being ‘larger than life’ – which is sort of fitting considering it takes place in Texas – a state big in size and in pride. There are entire shots where the interior of the Benedict mansion dominates over the people within. Of course it does have its fair share of more intimate medium-shots, but the use of this technique was quite effective and reminded me of a less extreme version of the cinematography in How the West Was Won. Stevens even takes advantage of the elements. For instance, as the film builds up to a confrontation a storm outside rages on at an increased intensity with winds roaring and throwing open the doors.

Random pretentious muse of the review, I am also curious as to the relationship Bick had with land versus Jett’s discovery of oil. Is it meant to symbolize how Jett manages to bring out the blackest of emotions from within Bick, much as he extracts oil from the land (land = Bick)? I don’t know. Probably overthinking it but I felt like it was worth noting while I typed this up.

Moving right along then.

In many ways the use of a single family to highlight the greater world around them reminded me of another epic I recently watched – How the West Was Won. Giant is a movie that manages to tackle important themes and issues of the surrounding society – whether it be monetary or racial – but never falls into the trap of being preachy that so many films today do.

Unlike HtWWW, the large scope does not minimize the characters in this film. Taylor does a great job playing the moral anchor of the family who, despite being out of her element (she is an Eastern girl moved to Texas), never submits to the whims of others. She is her own person throughout the film, which helps Hudson’s Bick complete a character arc as he goes from a cock-sure man whose main concern is passing along all of his land to his son, to a man willing to stand up and take a beating for what he eventually learns is right. Much of this is due to his son, who not only voices his desire to go to medical school instead of manning the ranch, but also marries a Mexican woman.

I am also astonished at how entertaining this film managed to be despite its length. Perhaps it is a touch too long, but really you’d be hard pressed to find a truly dull moment in the entire run-time. This is, in large part, due to the strong characters and the sheer scope of the movie. 

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Mr. and Mrs. Benedict (Hudson and Taylor) standing before a large painting of the frontier. There are many of these hung up around the Benedict household, suggesting the family’s appreciation for the lifestyle on the Texas frontier.

Now I have not seen Around the World in 80 Daysbut I fail to understand how in God’s name Giant was so criminally overlooked by the Academy. Especially since Around the World in 80 Days is considered to be one of the worst BP winners of all time. How could Giant not win?

Even worse it seems like this movie is ignored by contemporary movie fans and the public in general. Nobody talks about it. Having seen this film, I am depressed by this fact. So instead of merely recommending this title, I will go one step further and urge you with every fiber of my being to go watch this film as soon as possible. Just a warning, however, this film is extremely long. Plan accordingly, don’t be afraid to pause it every now and then, and do yourself a favor and watch this on as big of a screen as possible. 

3.9/4

P.S. Be sure to keep an eye out for a very young Dennis Hopper. I failed to realize he was in the film until I looked it up. Then I saw who he played and…jumping Jiminy Cricket he was young.

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Image Sources

‘Giant’ movie poster 

Giant imdb page

James Dean Image

Hudson and Taylor Image

Final Image

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