Edna Ferber specialised in writing sprawling family sagas, several of them set in the West. Her 1930 novel Cimarron was twice filmed by Hollywood, as was the 1926 film Show Boat, set in the Deep South.
In Giant, written in 1950, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) is a gruff hard-bitten Texas cattle baron who marries a belle of the old South, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the strong-willed daughter of a wealthy Maryland doctor.
Leslie finds living in Texas a far cry from her native Maryland and clashes with Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge), old maid sister to Bick and heretofore the mistress of the great Reata ranch – a cattle spread of 595,000 acres inherited from their father and grandfather
Before there can be a showdown between the two, Luz is fatally injured in a fall from Leslie’s beautiful black stallion, goaded by Luz’s own spurs.
Simmering simultaneously is the ill-feeling between Bick and Jett Rink (James Dean), a surly and uncouth ranch hand who had been Luz Benedict’s chief admirer. Rink had been fired from the Reata ranch by Bick only to be rehired by his sister.
When Luz dies she wills Rink a small piece of land on the ranch deemed worthless. But Rink strikes oil and becomes immensely rich, although his personal life is a disappointment (he carries a torch for Leslie) and he declines into alcoholism.
Throughout these transitions, Leslie and Bick become the parents of three children. As the new generations of Benedicts mature, they have their own ideas about what they will do with their lives and new conflicts spring up in the family.
As Bick and Leslie grow older, they are concerned with who will run the ranch after they’ve gone. Their daughter (Carroll Baker) wants to take over, but Leslie doesn’t approve.
To Bick’s disappointment, their son Jordan (Dennis Hopper, pictured) has married a Mexican girl and rejected cattle-raising to become a doctor, while his twin sister Judy (Fran Bennett) elopes with a cowman.
At well over three hours, Giant certainly lives up to its title. But the performances are outstanding, not least James Dean’s, who was tragically killed in a car crash shortly after completing his part, and before the film was released. That Dean had great acting talent is obvious.
Unusually for the time, the film deals interestingly with both racial and class differences. Leslie is outraged by Texan discrimination against Mexicans (who constitute most of the labour force on the ranch) and she drives home the racial injustice over and over again.
Director George Stevens does justice to the immensity of the Texas landscape, and Giant gives a true feeling of enormous acreage, with the huge Victorian house standing on the yellow plain as incongruously as if Dali had painted the scene (pictured below).
Leslie Benedict (Lynnton)
Jordan “Bick” Benedict
Luz Benedict II
Jordan Benedict III
Angel Obregon II
Mrs Nancy Lynnton
Dr Horace Lynnton
Sir David Karfrey
Mort “Pinky” Smythe