Giant (1956)

This review contains SPOILERS!
Let's just talk about movies for a minute.
There are some films that have gained an enormous amount of respect that I actually like, for instance "Apocalypse Now" is one of them. Then again, there are movies that people call the greatest movies ever made that I don't really care for—see here, "The Godfather" saga. Then again, there are movies that are cemented in every critics go-to book of great movie making that I think are just ridiculously stupid..."Giant" is one of those movies.
Now, to give the film the respect that it deserves and to properly justify my point, I will be spoiling as much as conceivable are warned for the second time.
Beginning on a train, "Giant" introduces us, with its first narrative shots of a man from Texas out of his element. Visiting Maryland to buy a great horse, our man, Jordan Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson), gets captivated with the seller's daughter instead of the horse itself. The very next scene gives us a sickly sweet and altogether awkward dinner conversation, though the course of which—though a rare word was spoken between the two of them—Jordan and the seller's daughter, named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) decide that they are in love. They don't make these confessions to each other, but rather acknowledge them inwardly and wait for the opportune moment to burst forth with this knowledge.
Leslie stays up all night and reads about Texas. In the morning, she asks Jordan what he thinks about the Texans stealing the land from the Mexicans. Here we have the first inkling that this may not be the sweet-sugar-coated romance epic that we thought it would be. Jordan gets very defensive and very angry at the notion that the Texans stole the land from the Mexicans...because that's just not what happened, so says he. The history books say otherwise, but Leslie drops the matter. Five minutes later the two of them go stand by a fence together and that's when they know they'll get married. It's really exactly as odd as it sounds.
Picking up his woman...for now she is his, and planting her down in the dusty fields of Texas, Jordan doesn't realize what he's in for. The glorious plains of Texas only make me want to re-watch "Days of Heaven" because, let's face it, Malick always gives nature its due, more than any other director.
Surprised at the carelessness with how the Texans treat their Mexican worker, Leslie asks each one their name and learns how to say thanks. Gracias is always on the tip of her tongue, though this is much to the chagrin of Jordan and his sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) who essentially runs the ranch.
That's another thing...Jordan is stinkin' rich. He owns over half a million acres which is one reason that Leslie's family is so eager in letting go of her, though this defies a semi-pre-arranged marriage.
In Texas, Leslie is under the scrupulous eye of Luz and nothing she can do can win her approval. Jordan has a hired hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who doesn't get along with pretty much anyone. Luz, though extremely callous on the outside, has one soft spot for Jett and she lets him continue working on Reata Ranch.
Things don't go according to plan. Luz is distant and cold, perhaps a little naive for she thinks that the newlyweds will not be sharing the same bed.
The mistake is made when Leslie makes the comment that she is equal to Luz and that Jordan's affection will now have to be shared. Well, that sits as well with Luz as a burr in the saddle. She does a fantastically amazing grumpy cat impersonation and then tries to ride the stallion that brought Leslie and Jordan together. Beating the horse, she gets thrown off and killed...then the horse it shot.
By this time, we have cemented the fact that "Giant" is not flattering at all to the Texans. It portrays them as ignorant, racist, traditional fools. The enlightened Maryland woman is scorned for her progressiveness in scenes like when she tries to join in the men's discussion about business.
They're having "men talk" girls allowed. She just sits by her husband's side and doesn't budge. You go girl! Then, when she's told to leave because that's how things are done, she gives a diatribe about the Texans being cavemen stuck in an age long ago...she storms off to bed.
The confrontation that follows between Jordan and Leslie is platonic and only dissolves into the sugary sentimentality the film overindulges ends with her telling him that she's pregnant.
Having a baby provides another layer of interesting commentary to the film, because I doubt that an abusive parent has been so readily brought to screen in the 1950s. Jordan prays that he'll have a boy...he does; but he also has a girl. The twins aren't exactly welcomed equally. The boy is hugged, kissed, loved, and the girl isn' least, not by her father. Take a birthday celebration for instance: it's both of their birthdays, yet who gets all the toasts and presents? The boy, of course. This scene is actually quite disturbing, leading to Jordan forcing his son, Jordan III, to ride a pony even though the toddler is obviously terrified of the beast. Does this stop him? No, in fact, he places the child on his horse and then gallops off for a while before returning little Jordan into the open arms of his mother.
Meanwhile, Jett Rink is suffering. He has gotten a spot of land that Luz left him in her will and he's eking out a living on it. Leslie visits him once and discovers that he is just as much of a ignorant Texan as her husband is. Jett dreams of becoming rich and when he discovers oil on his land, that's precisely what happens.
The best scene in the movie has him staggering up to the Benedict's front door, coated in oil, laughing at all of them for how terrible they were.
I don't have the patience to go through the entire movie, so I'll just get to my favorite/least favorite moments.
The children grow older, joined by a third sibling, another girl. Jordan III. is expected to run the ranch once his father gets too old; but his heart is set on medical school. No son of Jordan Benedict's going to be a sissy doctor!
Anyways, to add on to the monstrosity of becoming a doctor, Jordan III falls in love with a Mexican girl. No son of Jordan Benedict's going to marry a "wetback"!
Honestly, I think we got the point that every Texan is a freakin' idiot, racist, bigot...we got that! Please stop! But no, the movie keeps going.
Jett Rink's rise to fame is where the film's commentary is. He never changes his horrible ways, but Jordan manages to, after many, many years. Rink though a complicated process, insults Jordan III's wife and the heroic husband tries to fight to regain her honor...he gets knocked out flat on his back.
Jordan doesn't understand the racism, because he too is a racist...but he changes his way in a small diner in Texas where he fights with the cook over the denial of service to a Mexican family. This fight is accompanied with the glorious, triumphant playing of "The Yellow Rose of Texas". This scene makes me mad, because while it's nice to see Jordan being not quite so much of a jerk, instead we see that the film never heroizes the acts of Jordan III, who is by far the best character in the film.
Still, at the movie's close, Jordan is still a bit of a racist; but that's okay, because he tried a little.
What the film does well is show aging. The make-up and hair and acting is all very good. James Dean in particular does a fine job showing his character aging, growing more bitter with the years.
That's all the movie is good for. Its commentaries are never resolved. Are these people just bad because they are rich or because they are Texan? At least a more recent film like "August: Osage County" had the good decency to just state that the family was, it has much more explosive drama than "Giant" does.
Elizabeth Taylor could play a feminist, but instead she becomes a nice house wife. This is actually a great achievement in the film, because the years teach her how to handle her husband...I'm not sure if this is the script of Taylor herself; but it's pretty fantastic.
In the end, there is a power in the film, yes; but for the most part we have an overly-sentimental, saccharine, piece of crap, that can't decide who it wants to portray as the slime of the earth.
First it was Jordan, then it was Jett, then it was a daughter, then Jordan again...we get it, you hate everyone!
"Giant" is a poorly named, dusty drama that does nothing but frustrate...and it feels just as racist as the people it is mocking.

Score: ★★

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