A sweeping saga that follows a mega-rich Texas family over 25 years, Giant mixes spectacle with substance and earned director George Stevens his second Oscar. It's also the first James Dean film to get the 4K UHD treatment, thanks to an impressive new restoration that yields an often breathtaking transfer enhanced by HDR. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, this enduring, three-hour-plus epic also stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The lack of extras that graced previous releases is a shame, but if you're a fan of this massive slice of Americana, an upgrade is a must. Highly Recommended.
A few days after completing his scenes in Giant, actor James Dean was killed in a car accident. He was just 24 years old. For decades, Dean's early death and the romantic mystique it spawned cast a cloud over director George Stevens' sprawling adaptation of Edna Ferber's bestselling novel about a Texas cattle baron and his family. A sense of melancholy still hangs over the movie whenever Dean is on screen (it's impossible not to rue what might have been), but the passage of time has allowed Giant to emerge from Dean's giant shadow and be judged on its own terms. Though Giant is long - very long - a bit bloated, and occasionally self-indulgent, its vital, vivid characters, arresting atmosphere, and Stevens' poetic, elegant style make it a fascinating if uneven motion picture that's a testament to its director's artistry and commitment to his craft.
Dean received his second posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for Giant, but the character of shiftless outcast Jett Rink, who strikes it big on a dusty plot of Texas land and becomes a ruthless oil baron, is really more of a supporting part. Still, it's a noteworthy role for Dean, as it veers away from the emotionally ravaged teen heroes he portrayed in his two previous films (East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause) and gives the actor the chance to expand his range. Along with co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Dean ages from his 20s to his 50s throughout the course of the three-hour-twenty-one-minute epic that's a chronicle of both a family and a state.
Rich cattle rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Hudson) weds Leslie (Taylor), a headstrong belle from Maryland, after a whirlwind courtship and whisks her off to Reata, his remote, half-a-million-acre compound deep in the heart of Texas. Once there, Bick hopes Leslie will embrace the macho culture and adopt the conservative attitudes of the Lone Star State, but his young bride has a mind of her own and fights the blatant sexism, insidious racism, and widespread arrogance that blanket the barren, windblown landscape. When she discovers the squalor in which the Mexican ranch hands live on the Benedict land, Leslie vows to improve the conditions and ensure the workers and their families receive adequate medical care. Over the years, as they raise their family and deal with the trials and tribulations of the second generation of Benedicts, Bick and Leslie lock horns over a variety of issues while trying to adapt to America's changing mores.
Jett has always been a thorn in the Benedicts' side, but when his oil well finally erupts in the movie's most memorable scene he becomes a raging hornet who hopes to sting his bitter rival where it hurts the most - his wallet. The festering enmity between Jett and Bick disrupts both their lives, but things come to a head when Bick's daughter Luz (Carroll Baker) becomes fascinated with the middle-aged Jett and develops a crush on him.
Taylor, Hudson, and Dean may get top billing, but Texas is the true star of Giant. Ferber's tale, which takes place between 1925 and 1950, honors the state's unique culture, bountiful pride, and brash conceit, but doesn't shy away from exposing the racism, sexism, and classism lurking beneath its bravado. Giant ruffled plenty of Texan feathers in book form, but Stevens (who won the film's only Oscar out of 10 nominations, including Best Picture) manages to celebrate the state's individualism without glossing over its problems. The frank, heartbreaking depiction of racism, which includes the use of some epithets, was groundbreaking at the time and still strikes an uncomfortable chord - and raw nerve - today, yet while Giant makes potent points about a number of social issues, it rarely preaches, and that's one of its many strengths.
The third and final film in Stevens' American trilogy - A Place in the Sun and Shane are the other two - Giant manages to maintain an intimate feel despite its massive scope. Like a lazy Texas drawl, it ambles amiably along, focusing more on character, mood, and theme than plot. The movie drags in spots - I find the first half, which chronicles Leslie's rocky adjustment to Texas and the simmering conflict between Bick and Jett, more compelling than the second, which focuses more on the Benedict children - but the sporadic sputtering never dulls the story's impact. The work of Taylor, Hudson (who received his only Best Actor Oscar nomination for the film), and Dean is uniformly excellent, even as they awkwardly age, and the supporting actors, especially Baker (in her film debut), Mercedes McCambridge (who nabbed an Oscar nod for her brief role), and a young Dennis Hopper, also file impressive performances.
Like Texas itself, Giant is big, blustery, and confident. It has a lot to say, and it states its case firmly and succinctly, inciting debate, admiration, and a bit of shame. Though the film belongs to Taylor and Hudson, Dean remains a potent, looming presence, a symbol of how greed, wealth, animosity, and jealousy corrupt and destroy. As epics go, Giant is more substantive than most, and the care that went into its production is evident in almost every frame. It's not Stevens' greatest film - I'd bestow that honor on A Place in the Sun - but it's still a magnificent piece of filmmaking that holds up well.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Giant arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case. A leaflet containing the code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. (A standard Blu-ray disc is not included in this release.) Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
All in all, Giant looks spectacular in 4K UHD, but nagging inconsistencies in the 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR keep it from taking its place among the best classic movie Ultra HD presentations. Don't get me wrong; there are dozens of breathtaking, wow-factor moments (the close-ups of Taylor are staggeringly gorgeous), but because the finest source material wasn't available for every inch of film, the reduction in quality whenever alternative sources are employed is quite evident. According to the disc's press release, "The new 4K restoration was completed sourcing both the original camera negatives and protection RGB separation master positives for the best possible image, and color corrected in high dynamic range for the latest picture technology."
First things first. This 4K UHD transfer is a huge step up from the 2013 Blu-ray. The improvements are stark and immediately evident. The 2160p image is substantially brighter and more vibrant than its 1080p counterpart, colors are exponentially richer and more vivid, and seemingly insignificant details now grab attention. Grain has been reduced, but not eliminated. The picture maintains a palpable film-like feel and never looks artificially smoothed. Contrast is perfectly pitched throughout and there's a lovely sense of depth that allows us to drink in all the nuances of William C. Mellor's cinematography.
Clarity - for the most part - is superb, but it does fluctuate depending on the source. Razor-sharp scenes predominate, but soft and even a few fuzzy shots with slightly faded color crop up from time to time. Some vistas are stunningly crisp, while others look diffused and muddy. A scene on the Benedict veranda that's partially filmed through a porch screen highlights the delicate weave of the fine mesh, and when Leslie tours the ranch, it's easy to discern the texture of individual gravel pebbles. On the flip side, a close-up of Hudson early in the film isn't nearly as defined as the corresponding ones of Taylor, and some odd motion blur occurs toward the end as Jett's oil tanker truck barrels down the highway. Reflections in windows are nicely rendered, shadow lines are distinct (a silhouette of Bick as he gets off a train is striking), and processed shots, though noticeable, don't stick out like sore thumbs.
Colors are glorious, although the brilliance and saturation HDR brings to the table aren't nearly as evident in the scenes where inferior sources are used. The verdant greens of the Maryland landscapes are wondrously lush, the deep, crystal blue sky never exhibits any of the digital noise that plagues the Blu-ray, the reds in the Benedict wallpaper, Leslie's lipstick, a native blanket, and the booth upholstery in the diner are sassy, and pastel blues, lavenders, and pinks make pleasing statements. Rich, inky blacks and bright, stable whites anchor the image, and flesh tones look natural throughout, although the enhanced definition heightens the fake look of Taylor and Hudson's age makeup.
Though some of the transfer's imperfections occasionally disrupt the film's spell, they certainly doesn't ruin the viewing experience. Challenging issues always will face classic films as they transition to 4K UHD, and while some problems may be impossible to resolve, they shouldn't deter studios from releasing these beloved movies in the format. Ninety percent of Giant is top-notch; the problematic 10 percent will surely rankle videophiles, but shouldn't keep any fan of this epic film or any 4K UHD enthusiast who has never seen it from purchasing this disc.
When I first popped the 4K UHD edition of Giant into my player, I assumed the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track was the exact same one that appears on the 2013 Blu-ray, but upon closer examination it seems as if it's either an all-new track in the same format or the existing track has been spruced up for this release. The press release states, "The audio was sourced primarily from a 1995 protection copy of the Original Magnetic Mono soundtrack," but doesn't mention whether it's recycled from the 2013 Blu-ray. In my review of that Blu-ray disc, I noted "a slight bit of surface noise can be detected form time to time," but the track on the 4K UHD disc is clean as a whistle, with no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intruding.
Like the 2013 Blu-ray, the robust sound boasts an expansive feel that belies its mono roots. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Dimitri Tiomkin's patriotic, Oscar-nominated score without any distortion, and strong bass frequencies showcase the powerful rumbles that accompany the eruption of Jett's oil wells. Sonic accents like mooing cows, the slamming of a book, shattering glass, howling winds, and fisticuffs are crisp, while subtleties like faint horse hooves and dripping rain residue supply essential atmosphere. Dialogue is generally clear, but better prioritization would make the sporadic mumbling of Hudson and especially Dean easier to comprehend. Stevens was famous for his meticulous, detailed soundscapes, and the effort he expended on Giant is in full evidence here.
It's a shame Warner Home Video didn't include the Giant special features disc that was a part of the 2013 James Dean: Ultimate Collector's Edition box set and subsequent standalone Giant editions in this 4K UHD release. That disc contains a treasure trove of material, including two hour-long retrospective documentaries on Giant, vintage footage of the New York and Hollywood premieres, stills and documents relating to the film, vintage promotional featurettes, and a selection of theatrical trailers. We do get the excellent audio commentary with George Stevens, Jr., screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and film historian Stephen Farber (described below), but that's it.
Audio Commentary - It's hard to keep an audio commentary interesting and involving over the course of 201 minutes, but George Stevens, Jr., Giant screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and film historian Stephen Farber do a damn good job, combining scene-specific remarks with anecdotes, analysis, and a deep appreciation for director George Stevens' talent, drive, and commitment to his craft. The trio examines Stevens' understated but still cinematic style, aversion to CinemaScope, stoic personality, and penchant for shooting a scene from every conceivable angle. (Stevens reportedly shot 875,000 feet of film on Giant - that's eight times more than the norm - and the editing and sound process took a full year.) We also learn about various casting possibilities, the "spirit of Rembrandt" lighting that distinguishes most of the interior scenes, how the Eastmancolor film stock rendered inferior hues, the friction between Stevens and Dean on the set, and how actress Carroll Baker was older than Elizabeth Taylor, who played her mother in the film. Stevens Jr. also relates how the cast and crew learned of and dealt with Dean's death, and how a particular scene of Dean's had to be dubbed by another actor in post-production. This is an excellent commentary with very few gaps, and fans of Giant, George Stevens, and filmmaking will find it a worthwhile time investment.
In the splendor of 4K UHD with HDR, Giant looks bigger and bolder than ever before. A terrific new 4K restoration largely culled from the film's original camera negatives yields the finest transfer yet of this sprawling, multi-generational saga of a powerful Texas family that won an Oscar for director George Stevens. Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean all file fine performances in this engrossing, if bloated epic that tackles such timeless themes as race, bigotry, feminism, and pride. Though some transfer inconsistencies and the decision not to port over all the terrific supplemental material (except for an audio commentary) from previous Blu-rays rub some of the bloom off this release, the 4K UHD edition of Giant stands as a dazzling example of how fresh, vital, and immersive classic films can look and feel in the format. If you're a fan of this impressive, eye-filling production, you'll definitely want to grab this disc. Highly Recommended.