Big Jake (1971)
John Wayne potboiler ahead.
Old Jack here was in the mood for a bit of old Duke as Big Jake, hero grandfather and git. I’ve seen the movie a few times over the years – mostly early evenings in the 1970s when the Beeb was just fine with bloodshed and drab plotting. It sort of holds up. From the Duke’s final decade, a couple of years flush from his bravura caricature in True Grit, a few years shy of the terrific exit in The Shootist (1976), here he is standing tall in the Western genre, but with a dash of input from the Dirty Harry world of mainstream America – all violence and simplicity. It’s not a great film, and for the most part is ever so slightly dull, but the Duke is being laconic, casual bewigged and Big Jake. What’s not to love?
So. He isn’t in it for the first twenty minutes. They’re given over to a bloody set–up at the McCandles ranch out in the sunburnt nowhere. There’s a ton of money on display in the refined homestead and mini-village huddled round it. Servants, cowboys and kids go about their business as Martha McCandles, long estranged wife of Jacob, runs the place with a cool eye. And then some bastards ride into view, approaching at a gentle pace after a curious introduction from the writers: a voice over about the changing times, what else is going on in 1909, and the precise history of this bunch of bastards. They’re all murderers, at least one loving close-up work with a machete, another, their leader Frain (old and future Duke enemy Richard Boone) loving a plan…
Then they kill nearly everyone, except Martha played by Maureen O’Hara in her final film with the Duke, and looking stiff and very red of hair… Her oldest boy is wounded and dragged to bed. Her grandson, Little Jake, played rather sweetly by Wayne’s youngest son Ethan Wayne, is kidnapped. Ransom – $1,000,000. Really – it’s 1909. And so the call goes out to Big Jake McCandles, described as a lousy old tosser by O’Hara just as we cut to a close-up of the Duke’s red old face… Which is great. By that point, old Jack was very keen to see the lumbering hero do some good and stop the film feeling like a 1970s bloodfest. Which he does – immediately stopping the hanging of a caricature Scot by Jock Ewing. Yup, John Wayne and Jim Davis, together. I was suddenly aware just how relaxed and fluid the Duke was even on a bad day…
Long story short. Duke goes home by train, gets met at the station by O’Hara with a box containing the money, has a fight with one estranged son (Patrick Wayne giving it good jawline and shiny teeth), sort of gets on with the mechanically modern other son (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert and owner of early blond highlights). Two groups emerge, a legal one that the boys go join, and the Duke, his horse and his dog, Dog. Group one head off and get ambushed – idiots. Mitchum and his stuntman shows off some 1909 motorcycling and the bad guys back off when the boy startles their horses and…
Okay. There’s the end of the interesting part of the middle of the film. It’s then a long wait, with rubbishy comedy by rivers with modern guns and some casual growliness between the Duke, Boone and the Dog. Oh – and Duke’s old friend, Bruce Cabot as Sam Sharpnose of the Apache. It goes a big man’s-man masculine for my taste; the film, these scenes in particular, and the Duke plainly need O’Hara’s presence. Which is tough, because she doesn’t come back to bookend the wretchedness at the ranch.
But get to the ending and you’ll have a good time. You know what’ll happen, and the shoot-’em-up gives good value. Out in the dark, surrounded by rocks and old buildings, John Wayne does his thing to the baddies. It’s not an easy battle, Dog and Sharpnose get the oddly unmourned rough end of things, and all the heroes take bullets. Fortunately, they are tremendously strong types, don’t feel a lot of pain, and have garish paint where blood should be.
There are a few lovely moments. The Duke and Boone give consistently good value. Duke and his sons punch when punches are needed, especially each other. And the old man, a hero for his grandson, gets to bond when under fire, show the lad how guns work, and send him off into the dark with a touch of agency and a pistol. Which, for all the violence and stultifying lack of tension in the direction, makes the film about family and love between the generations. And that’s sweet.
The best bit? Duke spoils the day of the man trying to kill him in the shower. Oh yes. Two barrels and a bottle of shower gel – that’ll stop any rows in C Wing. There’s no nudity.
Big Jake is efficient if sloppy, broad and a bit flat, with an interesting beginning, great ending, and not enough screen time for the Duke and O’Hara. I like it.
It’s on Amazon Prime, so go watch some heartwarming bloodshed.
ACTION, AMERICAN, COMEDY, DRAMA, MIDDLE YEARS MOVIES, WESTERN, YOUNG AT HEART MOVIES
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