It only took me my entire life to watch the third of James Dean’s three movies, the 1956 production of Giant. I haven’t yet read Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel on which the film is based, but the adaptation opens some fine questions for people interested in literature regarding agriculture. Yes, there’s some pretty solid acting by the three principals: Dean, Liz Taylor, and Rock Hudson. However, what makes this story stick in my mind is not the flexibility shown by these actors as their characters pass some thirty years in the space of three hours.
On one level, Giant is a love triangle. Bick Benedict (Hudson), returns home with a beautiful and engaging wife Leslie (Taylor). Hired hand Jet Rink (Dean) maintains a decades-long unexpressed longing for his rival’s wife. That’s one level, but this film is–well–giant. It explores questions of progress and land and ownership and class and race and history and more.
The two men in the story take different paths toward power and control. The Benedict way has, for generations, rested on the control of the land. Through the control of the land, the succeeding Benedicts have managed to control the cattle that graze the land, the water that keeps those cattle alive, and the people who attempt to scratch out a living from that land.
The Rink way begins with a chink in the armor of the Benedict way. When Luz Benedict, Bick’s sister, dies, she wills a small chunk of the family ranch to Jet Rink. The motivation for that gift is not altogether clear in the movie, although I would hope Ferber explained it better in the novel’s more expansive space. Regardless, Jet refuses a generous buy-out from Bick, opting instead to stay close to his secret love and attempt improve himself. The limits of that improvement remain slight until Jet strikes oil and becomes a staggeringly wealthy man.
Both of these men use control of the land to achieve wealth, power, and control. Jet never ceases to long for Leslie Benedict, eventually proposing to her daughter Luz (named for her aunt) as a surrogate. Leslie remains the one thing that Jet cannot possess. On the other hand, Bick finds that the ways of his father do not grant him the sort of control over Leslie he would have preferred. Over the years, Bick’s rigidity softens, culminating in his physical defense of his Mexican daughter-in-law’s honor in an all-white restaurant.
As the film closes, we see a somewhat heavy-handed bit of symbolism as the two Benedict grandchildren, one utterly Anglo and the other unmistakably Hispanic occupy one playpen in one of the ranch house’s impressive rooms. Behind them, a calf and a lamb appear somewhat inexplicably, black and white respectively. The next generation, we seem to be shown, will be different. The old ways don’t work.
Both of the control paths demonstrated in this film involve exploitation and oppression. Both of them prove to be unsustainable and hopelessly susceptible to human frailty. The female path, personified most powerfully in Leslie, emerges as the way of moderation. This path ends in increase, love, and fertility. The green margin around the house that appears only after Leslie has been in residence for a few years symbolizes this force effectively.