Giant is the last and least of James Dean’s three movies, an outrageously lengthy, earnest, arbitrary Texas soap opera familiar to many viewers in its even longer two-part showings on afternoon TV with commercials. “Big” though it is, it belongs on the small screen. Sitting through it is like cramming a decade’s worth of daily television-watching into a single sitting. For an eternity, we see a luscious young Elizabeth Taylor suffer harsh Texan landscapes, an oafish husband (Rock Hudson), incredible boredom, and eventually the horrors of what must be the worst old-age make-up in film history (Taylor and Hudson get blue hair and have lines that literally look as if they were penciled on). After almost three and a half hours, big rancher Hudson learns to give up racial prejudice when he stands up for his Mexican daughter-in-law in a racist greasy spoon, perhaps the smallest big finish of any movie epic. It’s just an Edna Ferber through-the-years chronicle but Stevens, lusting palpably for significance, loads Giant down with the weighty issue of racism and just leaves it there for us to admire.
Dean is not in all that much of Giant (Stevens disliked him and thwarted his attempts at improvisation). As Jett Rink, an outsider who strikes oil, Dean, usually shot in shadow in cowboy hat and tight blue jeans, has only two good scenes. In the first, he tries to make Taylor feel at home by making her tea in his little house; like Jean Arthur in Stevens’s Shane, Dean’s Jett is carrying a torch for someone he can’t make a play for. Dean is quite touching in this scene, and he’s full of coarse animal vitality when he comes to Hudson’s ranch, oil-slicked, to announce his good fortune. Otherwise, the only thing worth remembering for Dean fans is the way he dances weirdly across the prairie every now and again. For a reason I cannot fathom, Giant still has a reputation as a fine film, and it will no doubt go on boring audiences forever and a day, and then another day after that.
Stevens's son, George Stevens Jr., is affiliated with the American Film Institute, so you can bet his father's films are always in good shape. The image here preserves, maybe even enhances, the film's ghoulish color, which makes the actors look like waxworks, and the sound is consistent throughout.
Since the motto of Giant is more, more, more, there are copious extras: two features on the film and its location, Memories of Giant and Return to Giant, film of the New York and Hollywood premieres of the movie, trailers, stills, television promotional segments, a documentary on George Stevens, an introduction by George Stevens Jr., and a commentary track by Stevens Jr., critic Stephen Farber, and screenwriter Ivan Moffat. If you have the endurance to sit through Giant and then sit through all these special features, my 10-gallon hat is off to you.
Giant defines the word "interminable," and watching it just once is guaranteed to lop at least a year off your life.