Year: 1956
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: George Stevens
Producer: George Stevens
Writer: Edna Ferber/Fred Guiol/Ivan Moffat
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo

I didn't know anything about this movie before I watched it except for two things. One, it was one of the great studio system-era Hollywood melodramas, seemingly in the vein of Cleopatra and Gone With The Wind. I knew it had something to do with oil but all I knew of the content was the iconic image of James Dean, cowboy hat pulled down low, feet up on the dashboard of an old jalopy.

A little like Gone With The Wind it's a love story, but not by any means a simple one. Elizabeth Taylor is at her most beautiful as Leslie, the privileged and precocious but smart daughter of a wealthy Eastern family entertaining Bick Benedict (Hudson), who's there to buy horses from the family.

When the pair take a shine to each other, Bick sweeps Leslie off to be his wife at his sprawling Texas ranch a world away from what she knows among new customs, new people and a windswept land devoid of the greenery or gaiety she's used to.

But Leslie's resolve to be a wife to her husband never slips throughout the film (it's a great credit to the script that Taylor never has a screaming breakdown, shrieking about how Benedict took her away from everything she loved, even when the pair are in the midst of marital discord).

It has more in common with the other films in scope rather than plot or even style – from Benedict's sister who thinks she runs things and feels threatened by Leslie's arrival to Leslie's mixing with the Mexican ranch help to ensure their health and equality, it's a story as sweeping as the country around them.

The common thread is Jett (Dean in his final role) as a ranch hand who becomes an archrival to the family. Benedict buys him off early on with a small parcel of land on the ranch, and when Jett has a major oil strike, he expands his operation to encompass almost all the land around the Benedicts', dwarfing it in comparison and becoming one of the most powerful men in the state.

The movies from this era are always about a love story (or have one in them), and I gathered from several scenes that Jett held a candle for Leslie the entire time, his rise to power and corruptible nature a kind of Jay Gatsby for the time, amassing riches to stave off the longing for the one thing he can't have.

There's not a lot in the film that confirms that's what's going on, mind you, and the final scenes of the Benedicts and Jett at the big public launch of a hotel start to fall into quite surreal territory.

It's also the length that will remind you of the three- and four-hour studio pics from the likes of Selznick, Thalberg et al, and while it has a lot to say about everything from womens' rights and entrenched racism to capitalism and progress, it sometimes seems overstuffed with ideas.

As I write this review this is the first film of James Dean's I've seen, and I know he's a very archetypical Hollywood figure. If he's supposed to have been an amazing actor I can't see it – all he does here is scowl and mumble. He isn't even in it a quarter as much as Taylor and Hudson, who carry much of the first two thirds before their children (including a cherubic Dennis Hopper) grow up.

You have to see it if you're a film completist, but you probably won't be in a hurry to watch it again.

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