Big Jake


Big Jake  (1971)    National General Pictures/Western    RT: 110 minutes    Rated PG (violence, language, child in peril)    Director: George Sherman    Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink    Music: Elmer Bernstein    Cinematography: William H. Clothier    Release date: May 26, 1971 (US)    Cast: John Wayne, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Maureen O’Hara, Bobby Vinton, Glenn Corbett, John Doucette, Jim Davis, John Agar, Harry Carey Jr., Gregg Palmer, Jim Burk, Dean Smith, Robert Warner, Jeff Wingfield, Everett Creach, Roy Jenson, Virginia Capers, Hank Worden, Ethan Wayne, William Walker, Bernard Fox.      Box Office: $7.5 million (US)



 Big Jake is more than your typical shoot ‘em up-style western; it’s an elegy to a dying time and type of hero. Set in the year 1909, director George Sherman (in his final film) opens with old newsreel footage showing scientific advancements of the early 20th century like the automobile, airplanes and moving pictures. Life in big cities changed in a big way while things remained more or less the same in the West. Most folks still got around on horses and six-shooters were still the weapon of choice. This is certainly true in the case of Big Jake McCandles, the rough-and-tough protagonist who’s called into action after his grandson is kidnapped by a vicious gang of outlaws led by John Fain (Boone, Have Gun – Will Travel).

 The abduction follows a raid on the McCandles ranch in which several people are killed or injured. The gang leaves a note demanding a $1 million ransom for the boy. Both the state militia and Texas Rangers offer their services but family matriarch Martha (O’Hara, The Quiet Man) decides that only a harsh and unpleasant person is capable of handing such harsh and unpleasant business. That would be her estranged husband Jake, a gunfighter who roams the west his faithful canine companion Dog. He arrives by train and agrees to deliver the ransom to the kidnappers. He’s been away so long, he didn’t even know he had a grandson.

 Big-JakeJake sets off for Mexico with an old friend, an Apache named Sam (Cabot, King Kong) and two of his sons, James (real life son Patrick) and Michael (Mitchum, son of El Dorado co-star Robert Mitchum). His two sons still resent him for leaving their mother but they agree to help him because of the kid.

 What’s most interesting about Big Jake is how the title character adheres to the old ways while his one son tools around on a motorcycle and carries an automatic weapon in his holster. Big Jake represents a dying breed of hero, one that relies on skill rather than modern technology to get the job done. One of the movie’s best scenes occurs early on when the Rangers, en route to the rendezvous point ahead of Jake and his men (on horseback), run right into an ambush. The gang easily puts their cars out of commission. Then Jake shows up and saves the day. Maybe his sort isn’t so obsolete after all.

 Once again, John Wayne easily commands the movie. His character is a total bad ass. A running joke has people saying “I thought you were dead” when they realize who they’re talking to. Jake typically responds (in that familiar Wayne drawl), “Not hardly.” Boone is very good as the lead villain, the head of a gang comprised on the biggest dirtbags in the West. One guy (Palmer, Chisum) wields a machete. Another fellow (Burk) likes shooting people in the back. It just makes it all the more gratifying when Big Jakes takes all of them down. It’s cool to see Wayne work with his real-life son and grandson (who plays reel-life grandson Little Jake) as well as the son of a co-star. In addition, who doesn’t love seeing him work with O’Hara (it’s their fourth collaboration)? She’s only in it a short time but she’s divine as always.

 The action scenes are well-mounted, especially the sequence where they defend the strongbox holding the ransom money against another gang. Big Jake has a great cast too. The score by Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven) is terrific. It augments the action very well. The only thing I don’t like about Big Jake is the fate of Dog. SPOILER ALERT! He gets killed at the end. It didn’t ruin the movie for me but you all know how I feel about such things. Other than that, Big Jake is great fun with just a hint of sadness about a fading time and hero-type. If you ask me, John Wayne is immortal. His type will always live on in our memories if not on the silver screen. 

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