Monday Movie: Giant, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll recommend a movie–it could be a classic, an overlooked recent treasure, an unfairly maligned personal favorite or whatever the hell we feel like–and we’ll tell you where to find it online.
It’s hacky at this point to look at the three hour, 21 minute runtime of George Stevens’ Giant and comment that “everything is bigger in Texas.” But there’s another saying about size that may apply, especially when accounting for the movie’s lasting reputation: “Bigger is better.” Giant has been described as “Texas’ own Gone with the Wind” and that shoe fits in ways both good and bad. Just like its Georgia-set, supersized predecessor, Stevens’ film is best remembered for its scope rather than its content; it’s more bigger than better. For the most part, it’s a slow, boring movie (the trailer promises “every page!” of Edna Ferber’s novel and boy, does it feel like it) that’s nonetheless gorgeous to behold. Cinematographer William C. Mellor obviously knew, 50 years before No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood that shooting in Marfa, Texas automatically imbues your movie with that old Western grandeur. But a bad movie that’s also an old one gains something over time. It becomes an artifact, a crystallization of who we were or who we wanted to be in the past. Or, in the case of one of its star, what we could’ve been.
One arena in which Giant bests Gone with the Wind is in its depiction of race and racism. Whereas Victor Fleming’s film spoke volumes with its unwillingness to address the basic dehumanization of slavery, Giant actually makes a point to include standing up to discrimination against Latinos as a defining, virtuous character trait (even if it still falls squarely into “white savior” territory).
But if there’s one thing Giant most deserves to be remembered for, it’s the final performance of James Dean, who died before the film was even released. Through modern eyes, his impotent rage and entitlement makes him seem like a stand-in for the white, male MAGA crowd of today. But his story of a ranch hand turned billionaire more accurately illustrates the fallacies inherent in the American dream. All the money in the world can’t make him happy. Early on, having just struck oil, he visits the ranch of his rival (Rock Hudson) to gloat and leaves behind a filthy smear of the crude stuff on the pure white pillar of the agriculture scion’s front porch. Years and years later, it’s clear that the Texas old money crowd still sees in him that same dirty, crass braggart. Drunk, defeated and slumped over on the dais at a gala he’s thrown in his own honor, this tragically despicable figure belongs alongside Rebel Without a Cause‘s Jim Stark in Dean’s iconography. He burned bright and fast and left us to mourn and pity him.
Giant is available on Filmstruck.