I've heard the legends that giants roamed the earth before the days of Jesus, and if I didn't believe those legends already, I certainly don't now, because I didn't see one giant in here. In case you're among the countless who don't get it, director George Stevens went on to do "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (Hence the "Before Jesus" bit), yet that film and this one aren't his only classic hits, as the boy also went on to do, and before this film, he did "Shane". Before that, there may as well be one big blank on his filmography, because after years in the industry, Stevens was only able to had those three aforementioned films and this one for people to remember him by, and even then, a good couple of people still don't know about these classics. It's sad how it took Stevens so long to create a considerable legacy in film, and he was relatively lucky, and meanwhile, James Dean got his legacy through only three non-extra filmography entries... and a tragically early death, so maybe Steven' story of acquiring a legacy isn't the saddest in the world. Poor James Dean may look a whole lot like James Franco, yet he was, for obvious reasons and in many more ways, more along the lines of a Heath Ledger of his time, in that he was such a pretty face, yet had much more to offer to film than just movie star looks, and wasn't about to let you forget it, delivering one good performance after another until he finally delivered one particularly sharp show-stealing performance that he never got the chance to see. Of course, the only difference is that, while the great Mr. Dean is pretty sharp in this film, he's certainly not making as stunning of an exit as Heath Ledger did (Of course, who could?), and yet, this film is still considerably better than "The Dark Knight"... you overrating nerds. Still, as much as this was a good note for James Dean to go out on, as well as a good second entrance in George Stevens' all too brief legacy-setter streak, this giant production doesn't make it very far before it starts hitting some bumps.
Running at only 201 minutes, it's to be expected that this film gets hurried in its flow quite often. Wow, not even I can fully tell whether I'm being sarcastic or blunt, as hurried exposition was such a common occurance with films of this type and era that not even the longest of films could bail out of it, and sure enough, this film can't escape from the clutches of hurried storytelling, and it's that clutch that nearly drives this film into submission. Immediate development is scarce and progressive development is hardly a compensation, as very major pieces of exposition go hurried, if not just plain glossed over, while much of the minor pieces of exposition that would have smoothed out the story flow go neglected. This considerable blow to exposition leaves many story shifts and character turns, of which there should be many, to feel jarring, if they can be felt at all, as the tone of the film is over consistent to the point of repetition. There's not much slow-down to this whopping picture, making it all too overactive, with little meditation and subtlety in the way of story substance, made all the worse by a considerable lack of exposition, so where we could have enjoyed the compelling experience of watching business flourish, family grow and everyone mature, both in good and bad ways, the should-be central aspects find themselves standing as though they were mere side notes, and there's no other focus for this film to center around. A film that boasts a story as worthy as this doesn't stand much of a chance to every being mediocre, much less bad, yet with that story going tainted enough in execution, you better hope that there is at least "some" compensation. Well, sure enough, that's exactly what you get with this film, compensation for all of the fault, and enough to where this film towers as a generally satisfying film, with style that is consistently satisfying.
Being that this was 1956, don't expect William C. Mellor's cinematography to have aged terribly gracefully, yet it remains impressive in its relative quality, with enough scope in its capture of the environment to produce an epic sweep - even with the material being of limited sweep potential - and set an effective atmosphere. That atmosphere goes further augmented by the remarkable location choices, which are handsomely simple and supplementary to the film's themes of wealth and progress transcending limited opportunity, yet not always in most entirely fruitful fashion. It's good that we at least have the locations to emphasize the themes, because lord knows neither the storytelling or script are going to do it, as the film's progression is just so messily tossed together into one straight line of limited dynamicity and little room for investment to go evoked. However, while that is typically the mark of death, or at least total disappointment on a film, although there's no getting around this film's squandered potential of being more subtle and comfortably loose, director George Stevens all but makes up for his glaring faults in story progression with a generally striking degree of depth in his handling what aspects are meditated upon. Sure, considering the sensibilities of the time, there's not a tremendous amount of emotional meditation or depth, yet there is enough resonance in the air to give a sense of the time and place, extracting enough of both the intrigue and, most of all, the charm of the subject matter to make the film consistently entertaining and engaging. The performers help in this resonance, with the lovely Elizabeth Taylor pulling her classic move of messing up one line delivery after another, yet shockingly making up for that with an effective and layered presence, while Rock Hudson delivers sternness and vulnerability in presence of a proud yet flawed man and the late, great James Dean posthumously stealing the show with his inspired portrayal of a nobly simple, yet unflinching charmer slipping into complex corruption as fortune falls upon him, a role horribly betrayed by the faulty exposition, yet still executed well enough by Dean to earn your investment and show just how great of a loss the death of such a talent was. Were the film looser and more comfortable in its meditation and progression, it could have been immensely more affecting, yet where the film could have fallen flat because of its unrealized potential, it succeeds with the help of style, charm and deph within what thoroughly explored aspects there are, of which, there's enough for the film to stand rewarding and enjoyable.
At the end of a lifetime, which is apparently a day by this film's sense of time, the drastic rushing of potential affecting meditation and exposition taints the film's subtlety and depth, while a constant tone of limited dynamicity and slow-down render the film repetitious and potentially fall-flat, only for a handsome and theme-supporting sense of style and production to stand as supplements to the degree of depth and consistently engaging charm set by director George Stevens and the inspired performers, ultimately leaving "Giant" to stand as a tragically under explored epic, yet still tower as an entertaining and mostly satisfying effort.
3/5 - Good