Giant: Special Edition
Jack Warner, the pugnacious head of Warner Brothers, foresaw a problem with his just-into-production Giant (1956), so he sent a wire to director George Stevens to fix it: "Is there some way in your rewriting and polishing that you can... aim for a two hour show rather than the length I am sure you are going to wind up with; namely two hours and twenty-five or thirty minutes?" Stevens the already-legendary, Academy Award-winning director's director of some of the era's finest entertainments must have had a laugh when he read this. Or not. Ever since returning from his life-altering experience as head of the Signal Corps Special Motion Picture Unit during WWII, during which he captured horrifying color footage of the Dachau death camp, the humor had largely drained out of his filmmaking. Stevens was now making important films infused with a seriousness that stood in marked contrast to the light touch of his best pre-war work (e.g. Woman of the Year, Swing Time, Gunga Din). In Giant, he was tackling the sweeping, and controversial, epic novel by Edna Ferber, which had scandalized the state of Texas by daring to portray it as peopled by money-grubbing, land-thieving cattle and oil barons. Stevens saw the tome as something even grander on screen: an all-encompassing, multi-generational portrait of Southwestern manifest destiny, and the racial harmony so necessary to ensuring its survival and potential glory. Whether such aspirations could be served at two hours is forever debatable, but that it could never carry the emotional resonance that distinguishes it as one of the finest achievements in epic American filmmaking at anything less than three hours seems a certainty.
Giant begins with an eastward trip by Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson), a wealthy young Texas cattle rancher who comes to Maryland to see about a horse a beautiful black stallion but winds up leaving with the breeder's daughter, the tough, liberated Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), as well. Theirs is a brief courtship that begins, oddly enough, with Leslie insulting Bick's beloved state by suggesting that it was stolen from the Mexicans. Bick is indignant, but aroused by her insouciance, while Leslie, despite her misgivings about the state's history, senses a challenge unlike anything she'd encounter as a Senator's wife; thus, the two are married and off on a train to the dusty, windblown plains of Texas where they're to make their home on the sprawling Benedict ranch a desolate expanse of acreage at the center of which lies a dark, gothic mansion run by Bick's sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), and worked, much to Bick's chagrin, by an unreliable, boozing cowboy named Jett Rink (James Dean). Luz is initially resentful of the modern Leslie, which leads to a tragic act of hubris that claims her life. Though Bick is shaken by his sister's death, and his wife's tenuous connection to it, Leslie proceeds unbowed down her progressive path, ruffling the feathers of their friends and neighbors by daring to show compassion to their Mexican labor, while infuriating her husband by striking up a friendship with the undesirable Jett.
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What appears to be setting up as a love triangle in Giant becomes something much more... well, Texas-sized once Jett discovers oil on a small slice of land left to him by Luz land that Bick and his good-ol'-boy cronies tried to buy from Jett for twice its value. Suddenly, Jett has the upper hand, and, as he showers in the oil symbolic of the ranchers' cruelty turned windfall, his transformation from destitute runt to cold-hearted industrialist begins. Though Bick's business sense spares him a financial tumble, he loses his controlling grasp on the family unit, which expands over the years to include three rebellious children, rendering him a helpless observer as they pursue undesirable professions and lovers. That independent streak that he found so alluring in Leslie has flowered into full-blown tolerance, most notably in his son Jordy's (Dennis Hopper) marriage to a Mexican nurse. Finally, 40 years after he set this evolution in motion, Bick embraces the multicultural fabric of his family as not only worthy of his love, but absolutely worth fighting for, even if the battle can't be won easily. Stevens, employing symbolism as big as all you-know-what, makes this point unforgettably in the film's penultimate scene: a diner fistfight staged to the stirring strains of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" that puts a brilliantly unsentimental cap on a tough-minded American classic.
Warner presents Giant: Special Edition in a vibrant widescreen transfer (1.66:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The two-disc SE earns its title with a multitude of extras, starting on Disc One with a very engaging and informative commentary from George Stevens, Jr., screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and critic Stephen Farber (choice nugget: Stevens avoided CinemaScope because he felt the height of the image was more important.) Also on the first disc is the indispensable documentary "George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him" (45 min.), which features insightful interviews from distinguished peers ranging from Frank Capra to Fred Zinneman. Disc Two boasts two docs, "Memories of Giant" (51 min.), consisting mostly of cast and crew remembrances, and "Return to Giant" (55 min.), which goes into greater detail regarding the film's cultural significance to the town of Marfa, Texas, and to film in general. (It should be noted that both also feature heavy-hearted recollections of the day the cast and crew were interrupted from dailies to be informed of James Dean's death a few days after he had wrapped on the production.) There's also the fun archival tape of the "New York Premiere Telecast" (29 min.) hosted by Chill Wills and Jayne Meadows, wherein Dennis Hopper shows up with date Joanne Woodward (we'll later see footage of the lucky stiff smooching with Natalie Wood at the Hollywood premiere). Extras are rounded out by four vintage featurettes the "Hollywood Premiere", "'Giant' Stars are Off to Texas", "On Location in Marfa, Texas" and "A Visit with Dimitri Tiomkin" an essay titled "A 'Giant' Undertaking", four trailers, and a George Stevens filmography. Dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcover.
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