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So big, it needed to be filmed in Technirama

June 18, 2007|Susan King

"Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!"

These ungrammatical phrases heralded the arrival in theaters of the 1958 epic western drama "The Big Country."

Directed by William Wyler, the film starred Gregory Peck (who also served as producer), Carroll Baker, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives, in his Oscar-winning performance as a ruthless cattle rancher. "The Big Country" is a sweeping drama revolving around two families fighting over watering rights for cattle. Peck described the film as "a left-wing allegory for the Cold War."

A newly created print of "The Big Country," restored by the Academy Film Archive with support from the Film Foundation, will be unveiled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the U.S. premiere Friday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

"The Big Country" has been restored in Technirama, a screen process developed in 1956 by Technicolor as an alternative to CinemaScope and with a higher resolution quality. The process fell out of favor in the 1960s.

"The negative is in a completely different format than CinemaScope, which means it was less likely to be worked on [for restoration] over the years because it was difficult and quite expensive," says the Academy Film Archive's Josef Lindner, who supervised the three-year restoration.

The Technirama camera used a film area that was twice the height of CinemaScope cameras -- using 35-millimeter film, the cameras ran horizontally and utilized eight perforation frames, double the normal size.

The restoration work was done at Burbank's YCM Laboratories from the original negative. "On the whole, the negative didn't have a lot of damage," Lindner says.

But there is some color fading. "That is unfortunate," he says. "Some of that was corrected with the optical printer. It looked as good as can be expected short of digital work."

By all accounts, "The Big Country," which was shot at the Red Rock Canyon in Mojave and at the 3,000-acre Drais Ranch in Stockton, was not the happiest of shoots.

Wyler, who loved to shoot numerous takes, had arguments with veteran actor Charles Bickford. The two had an uneasy relationship on a 1930 film, "Hell's Heroes," and their animosity continued on this set. Simmons was supposedly so upset about the production, she never talked about it until the late 1980s. Baker also found Wyler's working method difficult.

Even good friends Peck and Wyler argued.

Besides Ives' larger-than-life turn, "Big Country" was Oscar-nominated for Jerome Moross' classic score -- he lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for "The Old Man and the Sea."


-- Susan King

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