The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] “The Big Country” and “A City upon a Hill”

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 27, 2023 - 05:41

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When I first watched William Wyler’s 1958 movie, “The Big Country” as a little boy, I was mesmerized by the charming personality of the protagonist James McKay, played by major star Gregory Peck. McKay is a man from the American East who has just arrived in the West to marry his fiancee, Patricia Terrill, a daughter of Henry Terrill, a man who owns the biggest ranch in the region.

In the eyes of tough Westerners, McKay is nothing but a weak Easterner who does not fit in with the Big Country, or the Wild West. Because of this perceived shortcoming, McKay is bullied by the ranch’s tough-as-nails supervisor, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), who tries to humiliate him by tricking him into riding the untamed bronco “Old Thunder” and insults him by calling him a “liar” in public. To his fiancee Patricia’s disappointment, McKay endures the derision and stays calm.

Later, however, McKay turns out to be a man of true courage. In one sequence, he shows courage and persistence when he is alone, trying and finally succeeding to tame “Old Thunder” after numerous unsuccessful attempts. In another scene, McKay challenges Leech before dawn to a fight that ends in a draw. McKay was neither a coward nor a weak man. As a former sea captain, he is tough and strong deep inside.

When I saw this movie for the second time recently, I realized that “The Big Country” was, in fact, a movie about America, exploring the meaning of a truly big country. Indeed, the film made the viewers ponder, “America is a big country in size, but how could it be truly big in essence?”

“The Big Country” tries to answer this question through its mythic setting: the Wild West. The wealthy rancher Henry Terrill has an archenemy named Rufus Hannassey who owns a smaller ranch nearby. Their feud stems from their competing claims to a water supply for their cattle. Observing their enmity, McKay attempts to reconcile them. He purchases the Big Muddy Ranch that includes the only river in town, which is the vital source of the area’s water supply. McKay wants to put an end to the feud by allowing both the Terrills and the Hannasseys to have unlimited access to the water.

McKay bought the Big Muddy Ranch as a wedding gift. Unfortunately, however, Patricia does not like the idea that he would help her family’s enemy and decides to leave him. At the end of the movie, Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey kill each other in a duel.

The hate and resentment between the Terrills and the Hannasseys mirrors the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats in America these days. The enmity between these two antagonizing political groups culminated in the attack in 2021 on the US Capitol, a symbol of democracy, by right-wing extremists. This embarrassing incident gave socialist countries the wrong idea that American democracy had declined. Consequently, they boasted that their totalitarian system was better than America’s liberal democracy and therefore theirs should be a role model for the rest of the world.

“The Big Country” illustrates how America cannot be a truly big country if it is polarized and divided by extreme ideologies. Its message is that America can be a big country only when its people have a big heart that embraces differences, tolerates others and reconciles with their adversaries. The movie also shows the importance of cultural diversity through McKay’s attempts to reconcile the Terrills and the Hannasseys, as well as the American East with the Wild West.

In a sense, the protagonist James McKay himself resonates with the original image of America. He is a gentle, unselfish man who wants to put an end to a family feud by mediating between the two archenemies. He also wants to bridge American Eastern and Western culture. Likewise, America has played a similar role to the one McKay played when it has intervened in conflicts overseas to mediate as a peacemaker. For a long time, America has done what the UN could not do. We hope that America continues to play the role of McKay in the international community.

At the same time, we hope that America remains a role model for the countries of liberal democracy. For that purpose, Americans should find a peaceful resolution to the internal scuffles between Democrats and Republicans. If they do not stop fighting, they will eventually destroy each other, as the movie shows through the tragic end of the Terrills and the Hannasseys.

The internal fight is cancerous. It is as if internal organs turned against and attacked one another. Unless the major organs can stop their cancerous skirmishes, the body will eventually perish because of them. We hope that America remains a truly big, healthy country that the world continues to look up to as a “shining city upon a hill,” as the first settlers dedicated long ago.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.