True and False Masculinity in ‘The Big Country’

The award-winning 1958 epic features sweeping cinematography, an all-star cast, and an impressive presentation of what makes a man truly manly.
True and False Masculinity in ‘The Big Country’
James McKay (Gregory Peck) refrains from reactivity in his mature approach to conflict, in "The Big Country." (United Artists)
Walker Larson

NR | 2h 46min | Western | 1958

“There’s some things that a man has to prove to himself alone, not to anyone else.” In the 1958 Western film “The Big Country,” lanky James McKay (Gregory Peck) quietly utters these words to his fiancée when she doesn’t understand why he refused to prove his horsemanship skills on an unbroken stallion and, later, fight a man who called him a liar.

“Not even to the woman he loves?” she questions in a pleading tone. “Least of all to her, if she loves him. Do you understand that, Pat?” McKay asks. “No. No, I’ll never understand that, so don’t try to explain it to me,” she answers.

And with that, their engagement is broken off.

Ranch princess Patricia Terrill (Caroll Baker) has a difference of opinion with her fiancé, James McKay (Gregory Peck), in "The Big Country." (United Artists)
Ranch princess Patricia Terrill (Caroll Baker) has a difference of opinion with her fiancé, James McKay (Gregory Peck), in "The Big Country." (United Artists)

Many people—men and women alike—would echo the words of Patricia Terrill (Caroll Baker), failing to understand the wisdom of McKay’s statement. We live in a time with many confused ideas about masculinity, from a shallow machoism on the one hand to, on the other hand, attacks on maleness itself under the label “toxic masculinity.”

“The Big Country” is a study in masculinity and its true and false forms. It suggests that true masculinity has far more to do with character, control of impulses, and the protection of those in need than it does with feeding one’s ego, showing off, or dominating others.

The award-winning 1958 epic features sweeping cinematography and an all-star cast. It utilizes space—both visual and auditory—to suggest the vast size and mythos of the American West, as the film’s title implies.

Against this expansive backdrop of burnished plains and cobalt skies, the film tells the tale of James McKay, a sea captain and East Coast transplant who has traveled West to visit his fiancée at her father’s immense cattle ranch. There, McKay’s eastern ways and appearance make him a misfit, and his manhood is repeatedly challenged, especially by the ranch’s foreman, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston). At the same time, he is drawn into a vicious feud over water rights between two patriarchs of the plains, McKay’s future father-in-law, Henry “Major” Terrill (Charles Bickford), and the rough-hewn Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) of the Hannassey clan.

This Western epic is set against a backdrop of the beautiful yet unforgiving West Texas landscape. (United Artists)
This Western epic is set against a backdrop of the beautiful yet unforgiving West Texas landscape. (United Artists)

A Mix of Masculinity

The film presents three types of masculinity, each one embodied by a character or group of characters. The first type is the man who behaves no better than an animal. He uses his brute strength to get what he wants, acts on impulse without thought, and dominates others. If there is a toxic form of masculinity, this is it. We see this type in the character of Buck Hannassey, the son of Rufus, who lives a wild life of self-indulgence. In one scene, he enters a young woman’s house without knocking, eats the meal she has prepared for herself, and forces her to sit on his lap. Besides mere lust, he is attracted to the young woman because of the large ranch she will inherit, so greed is also at play.

The second type of man we encounter in the film is far more refined and well-behaved, but still possesses a fatal flaw: an obsession with his own ego. The Major and the foreman, Steven Leech, fall into this category. Both behave politely when it suits them, but their passions, ambitions, and pride often break through that exterior in ugly displays, such as when Leech demands that McKay prove he isn’t a liar via fistfight, or when the Major initiates raids against his rivals, the Hannasseys, because he feels he’s been insulted.

One of the film’s central questions is, Where is the line between defending one’s honor and defending one’s ego? The Major and Leech often mistake ego for honor. This central debate is exemplified early on in a pair of important scenes.

In the first scene, the Hannassey brothers (including Buck) harass and haze McKay, who remains unmoved and unreactive, even when they pull him from his carriage using their lassoes. McKay demonstrates self-control and does not lash out in return.

A few scenes later, McKay and his future father-in-law, “the Major,” discuss this incident, highlighting their differing approaches to slights. The Major says, “A man’s honor and his good name are his finest possessions,” a statement McKay agrees with. The Major continues, “Here in the West, Jim, a man is still expected to defend himself. If he allows people to think he won’t, he’s in trouble ... your gentlemanly forbearance is misplaced when you’re dealing with the Hannasseys.”

McKay replies, “They weren’t dangerous. Just drunk.” Here, McKay makes a key distinction between his ego, which would have urged him to respond violently to the Hannasseys, and his intellect, which told him it was not prudent to escalate a situation in which there was no genuine danger.

In response to this, the Major spits out a stream of vitriol against the Hannasseys. In fact, the Major and his counterpart, Rufus Hannassey, have allowed their egos to draw their families into a bloody feud that ultimately costs them their lies. The Major allows his stubbornness, his hatred of the Hannasseys, and his ambition to cloud his judgement. This is precisely what McKay refuses to do: Let his ego determine his actions, even if it means others will misjudge and criticize him.

Things get mixed up when James McKay (Gregory Peck) comes to town, in "The Big Country." (United Artists)
Things get mixed up when James McKay (Gregory Peck) comes to town, in "The Big Country." (United Artists)

This brings us to the third type of masculinity in the film: the forbearance of McKay. From the film’s opening sequence, McKay is a misfit with his dapper Eastern suit and city hat. But we know he is a gentleman immediately: His first gesture in the film is to help a woman out of a carriage. The local characters think him soft, and their opinion is only confirmed when he turns down a series of tests of his toughness, such as the tussle with the Hannassey riffraff, riding an unbroken horse, and a fistfight with Leech.

In each case, McKay eventually engages with these antagonists. He does it later, when others aren’t watching. As he says to the foreman, “You aren’t gonna prove anything with me, Leech. I’m not playing this game on your terms. Not with horses, or guns, or fists.” He fights on his own terms. McKay breaks the horse when everyone else is away, fights Leech when everyone else is asleep, and takes on Buck Hannassey when something more than just his own ego is at stake (as we’ll see).

As McKay tells Patricia, a man needs to prove his courage to himself, not others, so that he knows he is capable of acting when the time is right. And that’s the key: The time must be right. Dramatic action shouldn’t result from a petty feud, an attempt to show off (which McKay specifically avoids), or an overreaction to wounded pride. The right time is when the protection of the innocent demands it.

Such a moment comes at the film’s climax.

Time to Prove Himself

McKay’s refusal to get riled frustrates his fiancée, Patricia. She reveals her own shallowness by failing to understand McKay’s imperturbability, which she misinterprets as passivity and weakness. As their engagement falls apart, McKay begins to fall in love with Patricia’s friend, Julie. At the climax of the film, Julia is captured by the Hannasseys as part of the feud with the Major, and Buck unsuccessfully attempts to rape her, epitomizing his false form of masculinity, the misuse of his manhood in which he takes advantage of others rather than protecting them.
Greenhorn James McKay (Gregory Peck) and local schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) develop a connection, in "The Big Country." (United Artists)
Greenhorn James McKay (Gregory Peck) and local schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) develop a connection, in "The Big Country." (United Artists)

When something truly important is at stake beyond mere ego, McKay acts, proving he is no coward. With Julie’s welfare on the line, he takes on the wrathful, unpredictable Buck, fighting man to man. This is the culmination of masculinity: using one’s strength for the defense and care of others, sacrificing self to preserve—not one’s ego—but one’s love. Having fostered in himself a true, solid character, and proven his courage to himself, in spite of others’ jeers, McKay can triumph in the moment of need.

The particular refinement of McKay’s masculinity is his ability to judge when a situation genuinely demands decisive, dramatic action—of which he is perfectly capable. When a situation is objectively harmless, however humiliating, McKay won’t use the his strength to stave off mockery or personal discomfort; he will use it when the situation truly demands it, that is, when the welfare of others is at stake.

It’s not about appearances. It’s not about ego. It’s about real, quiet, unassuming inner strength. To quote McKay, “I’m not responsible for what people think. Only for what I am.”

A drive-in movie advertisement poster, for "The Big Country." (Public Domain)
A drive-in movie advertisement poster, for "The Big Country." (Public Domain)
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Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, TheHazelnut. He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."