Since I was a youngster men seemed to be split into two groups, big men and wee men. As everyone is a big man when you’re young this distinction seemed arbitrary, but as you grow up you realise that someone being labelled big man is about more than height or bulk, there was an aura. The title brought with it the acknowledgment of respect. This idea is captured in the 1990 film The Big Man.
The film is set in a mining village just after the strikes and battles of the early 1980s. It could be Ayrshire, Auchterderran or Airdrie, it doesn’t matter, what is interesting is that it showed a part of Scotland that, by the 90s, many people wanted to forget existed. The juxtaposition between Glasgow’s ‘City of Culture’ status, and this land that time forgot is jarring. Director David Leland uses these opposites to great effect, portraying the big city as a place of temptation and danger. A modern Gomorrah.
The Big Man should have been a bigger success than it was when you consider those who were involved with it. It is based on the William McIlvanney novel of the same name, and stars Liam Neeson in the title role, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as his wife, Billy Connolly (the original ‘Big Yin’), a superb Ian Bannen and cameos from the likes of Peter Mullan, Kenny Ireland, Johnny Beattie, Maurice Roeves, Julie Graham and a very young Hugh Grant. Here’s the trailer:
But that cast is only half the story. Director Leland and producer Stephen Woolley were two of British cinema’s hottest properties of the 80s. Susie Figgis was responsible for casting, which explains the quality on show, and the music is by Ennio Morricone. The Morricone. And what’s more it really works. The electronics, strings and soaring vocals set against the stark landscape of grey skies and old pit bings makes for a surprisingly atmospheric film. Or perhaps it’s not so surprising when you consider the bleak Italian backdrop that we usually associate with Morricone.
So why wasn’t this movie a hit? It may be because it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it gritty drama? Yes. But it is also trying to be a Scottish Rocky or Raging Bull with gangster elements thrown in. This schizophrenia can be seen in the way it was marketed around the world. For the American market it was known by the less colloquial, but more dramatic title Crossing the Line. Also, the fights scenes are incredibly brutal and gory, which may have taken those who had bought into Leeson’s pacifist Everyman character as a surprise.
But that’s the point, he is willing to do anything to protect his principles and his family, in that order. The film is practically biblical with its themes of temptation, the fall, redemption and Devilish deals. I had seen this in the cinema when it came out and thought it was entertaining but little more. Having watched it again recently I think it has aged well. It pulls off its dual purpose as the dramatic parts contain real drama, and the fight scenes are realistic enough to make you wince or even look away. Perhaps the older it gets the better it will be received. Although it is recent history it appears as much a period film as Rob Roy or Whisky Galore.
In Polynesian culture the ‘Big Man’, is a man who is hugely respected in a tribe, but has no formal authority. A man who people look up to. That idea also seems to apply to Scotland, and, with hindsight, the mythical Big Man got the film that he deserved.