Saturday, January 23, 2010

True to Yourself

The Big Country
I've wanted to write about the film The Big Country (1958) for a long time. I've hesitated, changed my mind, and delayed because it's an older movie and I try to stay current whenever possible. It just makes communication easier when we're all on the same page. But The Big Country is a psychological page-turner replete with narcissistic old men, young men with unresolved father issues, one young woman as narcissistic as her father, and another exemplifying mature womanhood.

Thrown into the mix is Jim McKay, a ship captain from New England who meets, woos, and plans to wed Pat Terrill while she's visiting the East. Like any self-respecting narcissist, she conceals her true colors until Jim journeys west in order to meet her father. Two thousand miles from home, is he ever in for a surprise. Passions begin to boil as McKay is presented with opportunities to demonstrate his manhood (apparently, being a ship's captain was insufficient proof).

Despite the insistence of his betrothed, McKay refuses to play along, revealing a depth of character Pat, her father, and nearly everyone else in the story finds baffling. Clearly, his function in their relationship is decorative; Pat selected him for one reason, to enhance her self-esteem. Tall, dark, and handsome, he is the ideal "gift" of an adoring daughter to the father she idolizes. She may throw herself into McKay's arms, declaring undying love and affection, but make no mistake, her heart belongs to daddy and it always will. The idea that McKay might have an identity of his own never enters the equation; her narcissism refuses to accept anything other than his "becoming a Terrill." This is an important point because it depicts how narcissists target partners on the basis of their usefulness; Pat wants a trophy, not an equal.

Narcissists crave admiration. When deprived of it, they can easily become enraged, as does Pat when McKay finally breaks their engagement. Switching from sweet to sour, as is common with this personality when not in control, she lashes out, declaring, "I don't know what made me think I loved you anyway. You'll never be half the man Henry Terrill is." Considering her father's ruthlessness, that's a compliment.

What I find so appealing about The Big Country is the way it depicts a person of integrity overcoming pressures exerted by those who would have him be untrue to himself. Pressures not unlike the ones we encounter when dealing with similar individuals. McKay's strength of character is revealed by the ways he acts in accord with his own preferences and assumes responsibility for their outcome. That's what assertiveness is really all about, being true to oneself even when it might be easier to do otherwise.

(Creative Commons image of sound track album cover by kevindooley via Flickr)

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