Giant, directed by George Stevens, is based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. Stevens won an Academy Award as best director for the film. Giant is a saga about change: change in Texas, change in the lives of Bick and Leslie Benedict and their children and grandchildren, and, ultimately, change in America. It is a giant of a movie, running three hours and eighteen minutes, and covering over 25 years in the characters' lives. It is shot in color, with a tremendously moving musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin.
Giant is a serious picture about accepting the differences of others, be they outsiders, members of one's own culture, or even members of one's own family. It reflects social concerns in America at the time as well as predicting, in a way, the challenges of the civil rights movement to come. The film also contains the idea that people who have prejudices must change to accept and respect others, regardless of their race, background, and circumstances. This is not a new subject for Stevens. After World War II, his films took on a more serious nature, and the theme of acceptance can be clearly seen in I Remember Mama, where a Norwegian family has settled in San Francisco; in Shane, where farmers and cattlemen are at odds; and in The Diary of Anne Frank, where the Nazis are persecuting Jews.
The theme of acceptance is the framework for Giant, upon which all of the parts are attached to form the structure. Stevens believed that a film should be guided by one vision, and in this way, a sense of appropriate structure could be achieved. He said at a symposium on the arts at The Ohio State University in the early 1970s, "I think structure in film, particularly in film of any length, is almost as important as structure in upright architecture." For example, it is not good if a building is leaning, or has elements out of place, or is even falling apart. The same could be said of a film. Giant has a coherent, solid structure which allows Stevens to tell his story and create his meaning in the mind of the viewers.
At the beginning of the film, Jordan Benedict II, known as Bick (Rock Hudson) visits the family of Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) on the East coast to purchase a stud horse named Warwinds to take back to his cattle ranch in Texas. As he emerges from the train, he almost blocks out the image of the land, and looms large over it. The Lynnton family members are cordial to Bick, but he is clearly from a different culture than they are. Bick and Leslie fall in love, and he takes her to Texas as his bride. The scene where Bick almost blocks out the image of the land in the East is echoed, but differently, as Bick and Leslie, on either side of the train window, provide a frame for the image of the land in the West. Together they will help alter it. So the first element of change is that Bick did not marry a Texan but a person from the East, and this integration of cultures will have a positive effect.
Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) cannot accept the change marriage brings to the Benedict family. She cannot control Leslie, and is killed when she is thrown from the horse Warwinds, which she symbolically cannot master. Leslie treats the Mexican-American workers with respect, and even has the Benedict family doctor treat the sick child of a worker in the nearby town. Also, after dinner parties in her home, she doesn't want to sit with the women, but instead wants to talk politics with the men. There is tension, as Bick is not tolerant of people with Mexican heritage and has his own ideas of a woman's role in the home.
Jett Rink (James Dean), a poor worker for the Benedicts who is constantly at odds with Bick, inherits a piece of land from Luz after her death. He discovers oil on it after Leslie, with whom he is secretly in love, visits him. Her footprint symbolically fills with the black liquid. Jett becomes rich, and eventually convinces Bick to invest in oil wells in addition to cattle at the start of World War II.
The Benedicts have three children, and the theme of acceptance is stated by Leslie, who says, "All you can do is raise them. You can't live their lives for them." Bick wants son Jordan Benedict, III (Dennis Hopper) to become a cattle rancher like he is, but instead Jordan becomes a doctor and even marries a Mexican-American, Juana (Elsa Cardenas). They have a child, Jordan Benedict IV. Daughter Judy Benedict (Fran Bennett) wants to be a rancher. She even marries a rancher, but she and her husband want to have a small place of their own, thereby leaving the Benedict ranch, Reata. They also have a child, Judy Benedict II. Daughter Luz Benedict II is a rebel as well and even dates the person her father hates, the oil millionaire Jett Rink. Although Judy's husband and Jordan both serve in World War II, it is Angel Obregon III (Sal Mineo), the son of a Mexican-American worker, who is killed in battle.
In the present-day 1950s, Jett invites many rich Texans, including the Benedicts, to the opening of his new airport/hotel. Jett has always disliked those of Mexican heritage and does not allow them services in the hotel. When Juana Benedict is refused an appointment in the hotel's beauty salon, Jordan attacks Jett but loses the fight. Bick now wants to fight Jett to avenge his son's honor, and in a famous scene in the hotel's wine cellar, tells the drunk Jett, "You ain't even worth hitting." Bick knocks over ranks of liquor. Jett goes to make a speech to the assembled guests and passes out from too much drink.
Jett is a pathetic figure, for despite his money, he is unable to change his past attitudes. Luz II leaves him and goes with her family, and later goes to Hollywood to try to become an actress.
Driving home from the hotel, Bick, Leslie and Luz II go into a diner (Sarge's Place) with Juana and their grandson, Jordan Benedict IV, who resembles his Mexican-American mother. The owner, Sarge (Mickey Simpson), alludes unkindly to the child's Mexican heritage, but will serve the Benedicts. A Mexican-American family enters and Sarge asks them to leave. Bick intervenes on their behalf and finally fights with Sarge. Bick loses the fight and almost passes out on the floor among dirty dishes.
Back home, Leslie and Bick sit and watch their two grandchildren, who are in a playpen. A white sheep and a black calf are behind the playpen. One grandchild has light skin and one has dark skin. During this visual image of the importance of acceptance, Leslie, having commented on how proud she was of Bick in the restaurant, says one of the last lines of the film, which ties all of the vast elements of the structure together. She says, "After one hundred years, the Benedict family is finally a real big success."
By accepting change, from the East, from the children, and from the culture, Bick Benedict and his family are indeed a success, and in fact, have become the embodiment of the romantic American dream. They are rich and accepting. Jett Rink, on the other hand, could be considered the embodiment of the American nightmare. He is rich and unaccepting, and therefore is last seen alone in the vast empty ballroom where he was to make his speech, passing out not from fighting for what is right, but from drinking too much.
George Stevens has, within this huge story of a Texas family, provided the viewer with a structure that has universal meaning about change and acceptance, and about hope for freedom and justice for all of us. In the final shots of the film, there are dissolves to close ups of the grandchildren's eyes as the song "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You" plays on the soundtrack. The eyes of the children are the next generation looking at the viewers to see if they can live in harmony together.
Essay by H. Wayne Schuth
Release Date: 1956
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Elsa Cardenas, and Fran Bennett
Director: George Stevens
Writers: Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat
Source Citation: Schuth, H. Wayne. "Giant." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 459-461.