Before World War II, American director George Stevens made lighthearted films such as Swing Time and Alice Adams as well as the rousing adventure movie Gunga Din. But Stevens’s experiences in the U.S. Signal Corp, which included filming survivors of the Dachau concentration camp, darkened his worldview. Stevens would express his new feelings in three dramatic films — A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant — that all dealt with the contradictions of American identity.
Further proof that Stevens had changed since World War II could be found in the title of the novel he would adapt into the first part of the “American” trilogy: An American Tragedy. Written by author and former Indiana University student Theodore Dreiser, both the novel and Stevens’s adaptation of it – A Place in the Sun – tell the story of a young working-class man and his desperate drive to get ahead.
A Place in the Sun establishes the template for Stevens’s “American” trilogy. It deals with serious issues while also providing mainstream entertainment. For example, while Steven’s film does explore some of Dreiser’s themes — especially its criticism of capitalism and anger at how society treats working class women — it is primarily a love story between protagonist George Eastman and the wealthy young Angela Vickers (no relation to Jon Vickers, the founding director of IU Cinema). The most memorable shot in the film is not one that expresses the film’s criticism of American society, but instead is a romantic close-up of Elizabeth Taylor that reappears several times at key moments in the story.
Stevens repeated this formula with the classic western Shane. It is a more somber film than A Place in the Sun and is especially critical of violence. Stevens said, “In Shane, a gunshot, for our purposes, is a holocaust. And when a living being is shot, a life is over.” But Stevens balances his critiques of violence with scenes of people bonding over apple pie and dancing together. He even provides a counterpoint to his film’s stance against gun violence when the title character defends a gun as a tool. By covering multiple viewpoints, Stevens remains true to the variety that makes up America.
The last and longest film in the “American” trilogy is the aptly-named Giant. It is a 3-hour-and-21-minute epic about a cattle ranching family in Texas. Giant covers everything from the rise of oil as a source of wealth to racial prejudice against Mexican-American people and even interracial marriage. It provides this social commentary while providing visual spectacle in the form of several party scenes and relationship drama that would not be out of place in other 1950s melodramas. It remains a powerful film for anyone who seeks it out.
Stevens won Academy Awards for Best Director for both A Place in the Sun and Giant. The entire trilogy remains a vivid display of proving that cinema is an art form where you can have entertainment alongside sequences that wrestle with vital issues — including but not limited to how far you will go to succeed, gun violence, and discrimination against minorities — that continue to face the United States of America.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest.