Jerome Moross: The Big Country

Jerome Moross' Oscar-nominated score helped The Big Country stand the test of time and made it one of the biggest movie music hits ever.

Released: 1958
Directed by: William Wyler
Cast: Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives

The Film: The Movie Poster said it all: 'Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!' Audiences piled into cinemas in 1958 to enjoy a western that lasted an amazing 165 minutes. Everything about The Big Country was big: the landscapes, the music, and the stars - Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives.

The Big Country's central plot about two battling ranching families would make a perfect subject for an opera. Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance plays Rufus Hannassey who is at war with his rival Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) over the land rights to a local river, which is actually owned by the local schoolmistress (Simmons) who inherited it from her father. Although she allows the men access to the river, both want it for their own. Meanwhile Terrill's daughter (Carroll Baker) is engaged to straight-laced James McKay (Peck), who is new to the west. His arrival arouses the jealousy of Terrill's foreman (Heston) and, to complicate matters further, there emerges chemistry between McKay and the schoolmistress. All the complexities and competition climax with a brilliant showdown between the two patriarchs.

The music: For the soundtrack, which needed to be as sweeping as the film's action and location, director William Wyler turned to Jerome Moross who had orchestrated dozens of movies and had extensive experience composing for the concert hall, ballet and theatre. Born on 1 August 1913, Moross attended the New York University School of Music, concurrently holding a Juilliard conducting fellowship. His innate composing talent soon shone through; the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann conducted the first of Moross's compositions, Paeans, when the composer was just 17. Numerous concert pieces followed, including a first symphony premiered by Thomas Beecham in 1943, and the composition of music for Broadway allowed Moross to develop his instinct for a distinctive American musical feel.

While the Big Country's Oscar-nominated score is somewhat reminiscent of the wild west ballets of Aaron Copland, Moross attributed his unique sound to his first experience of the Great Plains, which he visited in 1936. He later described the journey in great detail: 'I got to the edge of town and walked out on the flat land with a marvellous feeling of being alone in the vastness with the mountains cutting off the horizon.'

The Big Country was Moross's most important contribution to film music, clearly influencing the great western scores that followed.  Although several memorable themes are woven through the film, it is the main title track that has become a movie classic.