(1902 - 1981)
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For me, William Wyler is a director who rarely puts a foot wrong. His dramas from These Three to Dead End, The Letter to The Best Years of Our Lives, from Carrie to The Collector entertain and move the spirit. Born in Alsace and emigrating to America in his late teens, Wyler was able to obtain work at Universal Studios due to his mother being a cousin of the Laemmle family. That foot in the door allowed Wyler's talent to blossom.
Westerns were a popular commodity in the silent era. Abundant use of available outdoor locations made them an "easy" shoot and the stories had a built-in audience. Cutting his teeth on these action pictures allowed Wyler to experiment and discover his own artistic voice. As his career progressed, he would work for other studios and producers, collaborate with the best of cinematographers, Gregg Toland, and create masterworks. Among those masterworks would be westerns and I would like to highlight two of them from very different eras and stages of William Wyler's legendary career.
Peter B. Kyne's The Three Godfathers published in 1913 quickly became a favourite with filmmakers. The story of three desperate outlaws who become custodians of an orphaned baby in the stark wilderness of the desert touches people deeply. The first of many movies from the tale was made in 1916 and the property seemed a sure bet for Universal's first talkie in 1929. The reins of this "Carl Laemmle Special" were given to 27-year-old William Wyler. Young Wyler was more than up to the task.
By virtue of the age of the film and its location shooting in the Mojave Desert, Hell's Heroes has a touch of authenticity that transports the audience to another time and place. A former mining town called Bodie stands in for story's New Jerusalem. As we watch the movie we can feel the dust and the isolation, the huddling together of townsfolk for comfort.
Our three heroes are played by Charles Bickford (The Farmer's Daughter), Raymond Hatton (The Three Mesquiteers) and Fred Kohler (Underworld). Four outlaws rob the bank of New Jerusalem and kill the cashier. One of their number, Jose, is killed by the town preacher as they make their getaway. All the good and ill that will befall the three remaining men is due to a dust storm. The storm covers their tracks from the posse and the storm scatters their horses.
The outlaws must make their way through the desert on foot. The first waterhole they reach is poisoned. The next is dry as well and it is there they find a solitary woman, stranded and about to give birth. The young mother gives her child into the care of the three men before passing into the next world. The solemnity of their involvement with this sudden life and death, along with the knowledge that the cashier they killed was the child's father causes great changes in two of the men.
"Barbwire", the oldest of the crew played by Hatton, is wounded and knows he has not long to live. He determines they must take the baby back to New Jerusalem. Wild Bill, the youngest outlaw played by Kohler, has delivered the child into this world and vows to see him delivered back to the town. Bob Sangster, the meanest of the bad men played by Bickford, thinks they should look out for themselves. However, he goes along for his partner's sake or perhaps for reasons he cannot yet define.
The grueling location shoot in the desert works to the advantage of the picture as the actors bear the marks of hardship and privation. Wyler gives us stark reminders of the travails of our characters filmed against the prickly plants and the endless sky. The expanse of the inhospitable land that stretches impossible miles before one, lone remaining determined man reaches civilization with his precious charge is quite moving. William Wyler proved his mettle, his creativity and his worth to films in the new era of sound, with Hell's Heroes.
William Wyler, his producer brother Robert Wyler, and star Gregory Peck co-produced this popular Oscar winning 1958 western. Donald Hamilton's novel The Big Country is the source of James Webb's screenplay, which has some similarities to his earlier screenplay for Raton Pass.
We follow the story of James McKay played by Gregory Peck who leaves his sea-faring background to marry a rancher's daughter in an unnamed, but very big, southwestern state. Pat, McKay's intended played by Carroll Baker, had met the handsome and wealthy ship owner/captain on a trip to the east. She was out of her element and met a man comfortable in his place. McKay looses some of his glamour at the ranch, and Pat's impetuous ways are no longer as attractive to Jim. Ranch foreman Leech played by Charlton Heston is jealous and distrustful of the stranger from the east.
The people of this place and their long simmering feuds are strange to McKay who lives by his own private code. Major Terrill, Pat's father played by Charles Bickford, is at constant odds with the Hannassey crew, led by Rufus played by Burl Ives. Rufus' brutish son Buck played by Chuck Connors is one to stir the pot if there is any hope of trouble.
The Major rules by right of might. Land poor Hannassey is a thorn in his side in the claiming of water rights. These water rights are owned by the granddaughter of one of the area's original ranchers, Julie played by Jean Simmons. Julie has determined that her continued ownership of the river is only thing keeping the country from exploding. The battle for supremacy in the country is about to reach the tipping point.
The Big Country is a long and thoroughly satisfying western film. Like the earlier Hell's Heroes, The Big Country took advantage of extensive location shooting in California and Arizona. The rolling cattle land, the awe inspiring Blanco Canyon and the pockets of humanity in the midst of it all takes the audience to a place outside most of our experience. The overwrought emotions of the characters are both dwarfed and magnified by their surroundings.
More than 35 years into his directing career, Wyler was acclaimed at his craft with an impressive list of films to his name. His ability and knowledge could not be questioned. His career attainment, however, could not lessen the tension on the set with some members of the cast and crew. Taskmaster William Wyler found himself once again at odds with the cantankerous Charles Bickford, as they had been almost 30 years earlier on Hell's Heroes. Co-producers Wyler and Peck argued about budget and shooting which caused a year-long rift in their friendship. Burl Ives, however, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Rufus, always expressed gratitude to Wyler for his direction.
William Wyler directed 31 actors to Oscar nominations and 13 of those actors went home with the trophy on Oscar night. Jerome Moross' magnificent score for The Big Country was nominated for an Oscar. William Wyler was nominated for the Directors Guild of America award.
William Wyler received 12 Oscar nominations, winning Best Director for The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur. Although the majority of Wyler's westerns were filmed in the beginning of his career, there is much to explore in his later genre films including The Westerner and Friendly Persuasion.