George Stevens’ Giant: Manners Maketh The Man

This is a story of an American family taking place over twenty-five years (over two generations). Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr (Rock Hudson) met his wife Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) while travelling East to buy breeding horses. It takes her some time to get used to living in Texas, as well as the rough and tumble lifestyle. Bick’s rival is his ex-farmhand Jett Rink (James Dean) and when he inherits a piece of land from Bick’s late sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), he strikes oil and becomes as rich as the Benedicts. As we follow the themes of generation and social change, we see the world change around them and that there is one thing that Bick has that Jett will never have for his own.

Giant is not as good as Gone with the Wind but I couldn’t help get the vibes of Tara when watching this film. Based on the 1952 book of the same name by Edna Ferber, Giant is an epic western-style family drama that tackles the themes of family values and generation but also sensitive issues such as sexism, racism and The West’s unwavering loyalty to money, using James Dean’s Jett Rink as a vehicle to show audiences the repercussions of capitalist greed and self-indulgence. It also shows how a man like him can rise and fall all because of something as simple as lack of discipline and values, whereas Bick was raised from birth with the discipline to understand what he was taking on.

Jett Rink (Dean) is a working man who got rich but didn’t have the discipline, to deal with it
(Giant, Warner Bros.)

The film’s narrative is shocking. It’s sort of like Dallas meets Gone with the Wind and the final moments are both tragic and brilliantly executed. The beautiful backdrop is decorated with the enigma of the younger generation trying to show their views of the world to their parents. And those elements can often leave me sweating more than a man whose lost his poker face in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. The primary theme is family and how external factors can change a man in relation to his loved ones and his environment. Other themes include: generation, capitalism, love and racism. And when these topics are piled together, it becomes an intriguing sociopolitical hotpot.

In relation to many of the other issues, love become a little inconvenient. It is under constant pressure, no matter if it’s sibling love or romantic love between man and wife. It becomes inconvenient but not inappropriate. Love is at the centre of many family domestics. That’s just life. When the family show their passions (positive or negative), those are some of the best scenes to watch. I also enjoyed racial subplot when Bick’s son marries a Mexican woman. The subplot is a good indication how even modern society can view racism. It’s not taken seriously until it happens to you or someone you love. And when it becomes part of the family drama, Bick takes a stand.

Elizabeth Taylor gives a great performance as Leslie Benedict in George Stevens’ Giant
(Giant, Warner Bros.)

The oil rebellion is depicted as the villain via Jett Rink (James Dean). An able man can get rich but will be left alone with his money and bitterness, drowning his sorrows with a bottle of something. We have seen this before. It’s used often; it’s what we’d call a cliché but it does not get boring at any time. And that’s due to the performance from James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause). It’s really something and that’s even with the other cliché: Jett is an embodiment of “from rags to riches”. And in a way, metaphorically, he goes backs to rags again as he falls face down onto a table (dead drunk) just before he’s supposed to make an important speech to the elite, including the Benedicts.

Rock Hudson as Bick is polite, but he’s as stubborn and as tough as Texas itself. A common saying is “manners maketh the man” and I think by the end of the film we can see that Bick is the symbol of that southern hospitality / humanity and after the diner scene in his tussle with that younger and stronger man, we can see that Bick emerges as the film’s greatest virtue: manners maketh the man. He’s a rich man who loved his family and a man who spends time with them too. But I think he went into that fight knowing he’d lose but the fight itself was symbolic for how much he’d grown in twenty-five years as I don’t think he’d have defended those strangers (Mexican) as a youngster.

Throughout the giant runtime, our title pair give great performances and hold fast
(Giant, Warner Bros.)

Despite Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict ‘Jr (Rock Hudson) being a man’s man for the time, it was Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) who became my favourite character. She butchered societal rules and enforced gender roles (by men). She totalled taboos and she’s a lady with a voice and opinions and she would not change for anyone. She’s a person and made sure that everyone knew that she would not keep quiet on issues she cared for, as shown in the scene where “the men” are talking politics. She’s a beautiful and capable individual, but more so, an inspiration to us all. Taylor’s performance, full of grace, love and respect as the character grew older. And essentially, she became Leslie.

Jett (Dean) is an awkward person, a weird rancher who becomes an oil baron and thus the villain of our film. He is cunning and unpredictable. However, it is quite hard to differentiate between the moves he makes to settle personal vendettas and the moves he makes just because he’s spiteful. “Money isn’t everything Jett” says Leslie, to which he replies “not when you have it”. And even in his old age, that’s all he really cared about. And that was the difference between Bick and Jett. Bick wasn’t all about the money. Deep down he was always a family man and he had Leslie as well. Jett only cared about the money and that was his undoing, he had written his own suicide note.

I could not help but respect Leslie (Taylor) in her quest for social justice in this film
(Giant, Warner Bros.)

From the acting to the score to the performances to the George Stevens’ magnificent direction, Giant is really a great film, And with epics like this, it shows that we must respect our own mortality as nothing is ever truly set.

A masterful film that is worth every minute of its giant runtime