Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Giant is an appropriately Texas-sized western/generational saga that parallels familial evolution with the changing socio-economic nature of the United States over an approximately 30-year period from the 1920s through the film's present, and by extension, a turn of the (20th) century mentality segueing into a more contemporary outlook. It is filled with excellent writing, fabulous direction and technical elements, outstanding performances, gorgeous photography, and plenty of depth via subtly implied philosophical ideas.
At its heart, Giant is the story of Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson), heir, along with his sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) to a family cattle ranch that exceeds half a million acres. As the film opens, Bick has traveled to Maryland, ostensibly to purchase a horse from Dr. Horace Lynnton, who has a sizeable ranch of his own, but also perhaps to search for a wife. Whether the latter was his initial intention or not, he ends up finding a spouse in Dr. Lynnton's opinionated and somewhat irascible but beautiful daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Bick moves Leslie from the rolling green pastures that she calls home to the huge, dusty plains of Reata, his Texas ranch.
In the process, she ends up turning his world upside down. Luz sees Leslie as a threat to their routine, an interpretation that Leslie doesn't exactly try to deny. Leslie integrates herself into the daily workings of Reata and initiates changes in the way Bick and Luz behave towards their mostly Mexican staff, among other things. Bick and Leslie have children, but they're not exactly keen on following the family tradition. Other challenges and perhaps the strongest cultural change in the film comes via Jett Rink (James Dean), who goes through a gradual transformation from his early status in the film as a dirt-poor, uneducated ranch hand.
At a three and a half-hour running time, and covering decades in the lives of many different characters, Giant is nothing if not sprawling. But this is the kind of sprawl that works. Unlike most sprawling films, the cast of characters in Giant actually turns out to be relatively small, we always have a clear idea of who each character is, and every event leads to the next in a very tightly-written, logical manner.
In fact, one of the more unusual but laudable aspects of Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat's script is the way that characters will mention something in an almost off-the-cuff manner before we immediately cut to the full realization of the previous comment. For example, Leslie and Bick are barely courting before we see them married. Other examples--Leslie goes from telling Bick that she's pregnant to having the baby in the next instant; Bick says that he's going to fly in a plane low over a particular hotel--just for dramatic effect with respect to a certain character--and in the next shot, this is just what he's doing. The first couple times this happens, it's almost a bit unnerving because of its uniqueness. We figure that the characters are in the middle of a dream sequence. But it quickly becomes apparent that the device is designed to enable large time span passages in an instant, and for the overall structure of the film, it works perfectly.
Given that structure, it was also unusual in this era to pick younger actors who would then have to be aged 30 years or so (the more standard procedure was to pick middle aged actors who could be made both younger and older through make-up and lighting). But Hudson, Taylor and Dean are perfect. Dean is especially impressive as he undergoes the most significant transformation. All three of his major films are almost heartbreaking to watch; he was an incredible talent but didn't have a chance to do much with it before he tragically passed away. But all three principal cast members are at the top of their game here; each is able to do a bit of scene stealing if they want. It creates a lot of energy throughout the film and enhances the occasional tensions in the script.
The smaller roles are perfectly filled as well. I was particularly amused with Dennis Hopper among the supporting cast. Hopper portrays Bick and Leslie's son, Jordan III. This was his first major role, and he meshes well, but at the same time, you can easily see the more infamous Hopper ala Easy Rider's (1969) Billy, Blue Velvet's (1986) Frank Booth, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's (1986) Lieutenant "Lefty" Enright.
The cinematography and production design are consistently beautiful. The stark Texas landscapes (filmed primarily in the town of Marfa) couldn't have more impact. The Benedict home is oddly Gothic and a bit eerie in its exterior (especially post-Psycho, 1960), and lushly gorgeous and Victorian inside. Later scenes give the interior a redecoration to match changing fashions.
Giant is extremely engaging in its soap-operatic family drama, but just as captivating for its subtle handling of important social themes. Leslie's respect for the Mexican ranch hands and servants parallels the slowly and occasionally painfully evolving public opinion about different ethnicities that is still developing. She also tries her best to usher in a bit of woman's liberation, open-mindedness in child rearing, and many other "progressive" attitudes. She's a symbol, in some ways, of Northeastern (U.S.) thinking filtering across the country in the early part of the 20th Century.
Giant is heavy on symbolism in many ways. Jett Rink's newfound fortune isn't just a personal transformation, but it symbolizes changing technology and the necessary adaptations to remain viable economically; it's a move away from a more agrarian existence. There is also pithy commentary on World War II--just look at who returns in one piece and who doesn't, and the different attitudes towards this.
It would probably take a book to just give an adequate analysis of this film. It goes without saying that you need to see Giant if you haven't already.