Burl Ives won his Oscar from his only nomination for portraying Rufus Hannassey in The Big Country.
Burl Ives nomination here is a little strange in that he was not nominated for his most famous role as Big Daddy in Cat on the Hot Tin Roof. It is strange certainly since Ives was terrific in that film, but it is even stranger because The Big Country only received two nominations total whereas Cat On the Hot Tin Roof received far more including Picture, Actor and Actress. This is one example where it is hard to see why he was nominated here instead of there. I do assume that Cat on the Hot Tin Roof gave him the voting edge though. This misplaced nomination though is not really in the same league of other incorrect nominations because if an actor could be nominated twice Ives would have been a deserving double nominee.
The Big Country is not a particularly good film with many problems particularly in the writing which has a whole bunch of one dimensional characters filled in by rather dull performances the exception though is with Burl Ives' Rufus Hannassey. This is not to say Rufus Hannassey is written any better than any of the other character, I am not sure that he is actually, rather Burl Ives' brings a three dimensional quality to his character mainly through his performance. Ives has a forceful presence on screen which is instantly notable here when he is on screen you take notice, Ives absolutely owns every scene he is in even if he is not the focus of a particular scene.
Burl Ives's strong presence that instantly establish the power of Hannassey from the first scene he is in. When Ives appears he makes it abundantly clear that he is the most interesting part of the film. He really shows just a man with a history right from his initial appearance a crusty old cattleman who certainly has worked hard to get where he is. Ives is able to convey this without being singularly one note in his depiction. He does not just merely show a hatred of his land rival the major (Charles Bickford) as Bickford rather dully shows toward him, but rather Ives really shows more honestly a pain with the hatred over no only for treated as a lesser man, as well having his own livelihood threatened.
Ives' portrayal of this hatred really sort of undermines the film as the film seems to want to treat him as the sort of a villain as the major, but Ives won't allow that since he refuses to portray the hatred as Hannassey's only character trait. Ives is able to really bring out the conflict and the troubles of the man realistically that allows us to see his point of view so well that he becomes the most sympathetic in the film as Ives is the only actor in the film who allows us to honestly understand what his character feels. Ives is never content to let Hannessey be just a simple incarnation of one idea but a genuine man who exists beyond the central conflict of the film.
I think the best aspect of Ives performance though is actually Rufus Hannassey's troubled relationship with his hot headed and crude son (Chuck Conners). Naturally the relationship is written rather simply Hannassey does not care much for his son, but Ives really does find truth to the relationship simply through his performance. He conveys an actual disappointment in the father over his son, not just hatred for his son's action, but Ives is able to actually realize the father difficulty really in almost believing that the man is his son.
His best moment in his performance comes though when he is forced to kill his own son, and really it is an incredible moment. It could have been nothing just the death of a villain especially if the father only ever conveyed hatred to begin with, but Ives actually in his realistic depiction of the relationship with his son actually makes it quite heartbreaking. Yes you really don't care about the son, but Ives makes the sorrow of the father's action tragic. As he does show it as something Rufus had to do, and even though he hated his son for his actions there was still a fatherly love for him that still remained. Ives gives a very good performance that could have been the mediocrity of the rest of the film in lesser hands. It is a strong performance from Ives that only really is held back by his material and his co-stars it is a wonderful example though of an actor's ability to make something memorable out of film that offers mostly lackluster material.