Thursday, May 23, 2013

Know Thyself

Around the time I was finishing the decade of my teens, I saw a very influential star-studded movie, “The Big Country.” In it, Gregory Peck played a sea captain who had somehow become engaged to a rancher’s daughter in the big country of Texas. Peck’s character was retiring from seamanship and moving out West to buy some land and settle down.

When he arrived in town in his Yankee attire and little derby hat, some of the local riffraff roped him, pulled him out of the buckboard and roughly but playfully jerked him around. The buckaroos even threw his hat into the air and took shots at it. Good-naturedly, the sea captain tolerated what he considered an initiation akin to the keelhauling he had experienced at sea. But his fiancée was enraged and when she told her daddy, Charles Bickford, known as “The Major,” he decided to shoot up the ranch of the men who had mistreated his guest. Peck, of course, advised him against it, and made it clear that the Major was raiding that ranch for reasons of his own, not to avenge the minor initiation episode.

Thus, all the ranch hands, including the foreman, Charlton Heston, considered Peck a coward. To add to this conviction, Peck refused to get on Old Thunder, a venerable bucking horse that the hands customarily put newcomers on to watch the show. However, during that part of the day when the hands were out doing their work, Peck tried repeatedly to ride Old Thunder, with only a Mexican ranch hand watching. At length, he was successful in breaking and riding the contrary old equine. He told his companion, “Don’t tell anyone that I rode Old Thunder.” And he agreed to keep silent.

The fiancée, though, tricked the hand into telling her that Peck had ridden the horse. She then confronted her beloved, “Why didn’t you tell us you had ridden Old Thunder? You made me look bad by allowing everyone to think you were a coward.” To which Peck replied, “I am not responsible for what others think of me, only for what I know to be true of myself.”

For some reason, that statement made a deep impression upon my teenaged mind. I think it must have been the character’s wonderful integrity that made him so attractive as a real man. Others such as the Major, the ranch hands and the foreman were putting up the appearance of being manly and courageous, but Peck quietly demonstrated courage. The culminating fight scene between Peck and Heston is, in my opinion, the most expertly done Western fight in the movies. They fought each other bare-knuckled out on the open plains. Some of the camera angles were highly unusual and often far away, giving the impression that they were two very small people in a vast country. When the fight is over, Peck asks, “Now what did we prove?” That question still resonates when I think of fighting on any level, from bickering all the way to war.

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