There are few parlor games easier to play than “You couldn’t make this today,” but it’s hard to imagine George Stevens’ Giant – out this week on 4K UHD Blu-ray, and currently streaming on HBO Max – getting the big-budget, big-star, major studio, wide-release treatment today. A dialogue-driven, character-heavy, three-and-a-half hour adaptation of a sprawling, multi-decade novel doesn’t get the big-screen treatment anymore; this is the kind of thing that becomes a streaming limited series, dropping on Epix or Starz with great fanfare and disappearing from the cultural memory a week later. (As if on cue, Netflix just announced a limited series adaptation of another James Dean movie, East of Eden.)
And make no mistake: Giant is daunting. But this story makes its maximum impact when taken in all at once, without even the relief of episode cliffhangers in sight. It tells a big, bold story, about two families, and Texas, and World War II, and (it seems almost too obvious to say) America. But it’s a film about more than itself, populated by archetypes, legends like Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, and Sal Mineo, each not only embodying all of the qualities that their name implies, but more besides.
The stakes, initially, are small. Bick Benedict Jr. (Hudson) is a Texas rancher, visiting Maryland to buy horses; he sets his eye on a stallion, and on the young beauty atop it, Leslie Lynnton (Taylor). “Are you in love with him?” her sister asks, after they spend one dinner together. “Yes, I think so,” Leslie replies, and soon enough she’s on the train back to his ranch in Texas. But she’s not quite sure what to make of this dusty, empty place, or how to fit into her odd, new family, and she’s a bit of a Yankee hell-raiser in a traditional Southern family, so there’s that. And James Dean is off brooding in the distance, which presumably complicates matters.
The screenplay by Fred Guilol and Ivan Moffat (adapting Edna Ferber’s novel) quickly makes Bick into the heel, insensitive and brusque, while painting Dean’s Jett Rink, a ranch hand, as a comparatively sensitive soul. With that set-up, Dean doesn’t have to do much to show Hudson up, but he does the most anyway, to great effect; yes, we all know Dean became an icon in only three movies (and this one was released posthumously), but you really can only fully grasp what a thunderbolt he must’ve been by watching him work.
Bick and Jett loathe each other, a dynamic only exacerbated when Bick’s older sister Luz (McCambridge) dies in a horse riding accident and leaves a piece of the family land to Jett. And then he strikes oil on that land, in a wildly satisfying sequence that culminates in Jett planting himself in front of the entire Benedict family and announcing – crowing, really – “I’m rich. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you’ll ever think you can have!” (“You shoulda shot that fellow a long time ago,” Bick is told, in one of the script’s best lines. “Now he’s too rich to kill.”)
Giant covers a lot of years, and a lot of territory. (The aging of these impossibly young and beautiful actors, via hair and make-up alterations, is not altogether convincing.) The supporting cast is stacked and their characters are rich, and plenty of fine actors get at least a moment to shine. And because Stevens is such a skilled director, his themes aren’t all loaded into dialogue; throughout the picture, he gracefully conveys, in glances and pauses, how all of these people get sucked into this family’s orbit, whether they want to or not.
But the film’s real achievement is how deftly it dramatizes the emotional arcs of its two male leads. It’s worth reiterating that the casting is brilliant: Dean is all internal sensitivity and withdrawn beauty, and Hudson is a stodgier and more traditional actor, so he slots into the less sympathetic role easily – and, kudos to him, he leans into the character’s flaws. But slowly but surely (and this is where the expansive running time becomes such a virtue) they shift positions, with Jet becoming a hard case in a nasty little mustache, and Bick becoming aware of the needs and desires of those around him, and opening up to them. He sees what a cold, empty shell Jett has become, recognizes himself, and doesn’t like what he sees.
Such subtle but affecting engagement with ideas of masculinity and morality is mostly handled as subtext, though it becomes text in the bruising fight scene that ends the story. This is no accident; the way Stevens scores it with a rousing instrumental rendition of “The Eyes of Texas” couldn’t be more telling. Giant is an epic, and its scope is massive. But it’s the best kind of epic, less preoccupied with the landscape of the great Southwest, and more with those of the human psyche.