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Big Jake Review

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by Chris McEneany May 23, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    Big Jake Review

    “Well, friend … that's it. No hard feelings ...”

    “The hell there aren't!”

    BOOM!!!

    Well, folks, in many ways I've saved the best of this little John Wayne Festival for the last. We've looked at The Comancheros, The Horse Soldiers and Rio Lobo and now it is the turn of Big Jake. Now, none of these films are usually hailed as top drawer Duke yarns, but all epitomise the man, the myth and the machismo that forged the iconic Hollywood Legend that is John Wayne. It has been a real pleasure going through these entries that all came at pivotal and, indeed, difficult times for the star, times when his politics, his character and his place in the pantheon of movie-making were being questioned and often reappraised by audiences and a system that he felt alienated by. That he continued to do what he did best throughout this turbulent period in his career is testament to his immortal adage that “a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.”

    Despite disappointment and disillusionment with Rio Lobo, it has been a rare pleasure to invest so much time and attention to these films. I hope you have enjoyed the coverage, folks. So let's hit the trail once more with the gruffly charismatic and ever-dependable force of nature that is the Duke. Love him or loathe him … there's no-one who could touch him.

    After the poor and rather saddle-sore outing of Rio Lobo, John Wayne found his mojo once more in the service of his most exciting and engrossing twilight years Western, 1971's terrific Big Jake for director George Sherman. It seems odd to me that this movie is not so well remembered because it totally hits the bullseye on so many counts and works as both a terrific John Wayne picture and a thrilling Western in its own right. It is too easy to say that the genre was running out of steam by this time – it was after Sam Peckinpah had twisted it into bloodier and more anti-heroic extremes and Leone had simply subverted it into a dark opera of death – but the fact that Wayne kept on climbing into the saddle proved that the old gunfighters were not about to go down without a fight. The Western was becoming elegiac and referential, taken more seriously as a statement about the dwindling days of true freedom and about men facing up to their heroic redundancy and the corruption of their own legends. Eastwood would carry on the good fight, of course, but even his brand of Western would become dark, cynical and even existential in things like The Beguiled, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider.

    Big Jake, at first, appears to be exactly this sort of wistful revisionism and melancholic recollection. But, pretty soon, it becomes just the sort of horse-opera that Western fans still hanker after even today.

    It is 1909 and weird automobile jalopies are scaring the horses, strange guns have magazines in their handles and can fire more than six shots and the modern world is fast encroaching, but some things never change. When a band of vicious outlaws, led by the bloodthirsty turncoat John Fain (Richard Boone) conduct a violent raid on the rich McCandles ranch, make off with the owner's eight-year-old grandson and issue a ransom for a million dollars, the boy's notoriously rough 'n' ready grandfather, Big Jake McCandles (John Wayne) takes the law into his own hands and sets off after the gang in the old fashioned way of an eye-for-an-eye.

    We are brought up to scratch on the trappings of the new technological age in a wonderful compare-and-contrast title montage that seeks to show us, via black-and-white photographs how people were faring in the sprawling metropolis of modern, bustling New York as opposed to their distant cousins down on the frontiers of the still Old West. They get their new fashions and fancy big buildings, whilst our lot in the boondocks are still driving cattle-herds across the land, and capping-off the bad guys and laying their bodies out for the crowds. When Maureen O' Hara's Martha McCandles sends a desperate note for her wandering husband, Jake, to return to help them, Wayne's bear-like cowboy, and his trusty dog (called, appropriately enough “Dog” - just like Mad Max's mutt in The Road Warrior) arrive in-amidst a flurry of activity from would-be rescuers including a Sheriff's posse, and his own two sons, James and Michael. The initial hunt for the outlaw gang is to be mounted on a convoy of cars, headed-up by a motorcyclist, since they are supposedly faster and go further than a horse. Big Jake ain't so impressed. And when the convoy gets caught in an ambush, he becomes the abducted boy's only chance.

    Swiftly recruiting his two sons – a third one, the kidnapped boy's father Jeff (played by Bobby Vinton), has been shot-up by the gang during the initial raid and is only hanging onto life so as not to make a liar of his forceful mother – Big Jake, accompanied by a trusted Indian scout called Sam Sharpnose (played incredibly well by King Kong's Bruce Cabot, who died the following year), then takes control of the operation. From now on they are going to do things his way … and those things are going to get bloody. With a mule packing a big red box with the ransom money in it this more traditional convoy follows the gore-spattered instructions that Fain left for them, and a wild and raucous, funny and touching, violent and exciting odyssey begins. And with Elmer Bernstein providing yet another bold fanfare-laden score to accompany him on his mission, the Duke fights back the turning tide of the twentieth century, sticks to his guns, his principles and his fists in this barnstorming ride of glory and righteous retribution that sizzles with a cracking screenplay, great characters and lots of well-directed action set-pieces.

    It is no secret that Wayne regretted passing on the part of Dirty Harry for Don Siegel's vastly influential cop thriller (read urban Western), and even if he did eventually get to portray similarly unorthodox and maverick detectives in McQ and Brannigan, the seeds of potential envy were manifested even here in Big Jake which was, in fact written by the two scribes who penned Clint Eastwood's San Francisco manhunt, Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink – so it is no surprise. The theme of a kidnapped child evokes the same justifiable rage as it does in Eastwood's cat-and-mouse hunting of Scorpio. There are even lots of crystal-clear assertions that the boy could already be dead, or that the gang will simply kill him anyway even if they get the ransom, which remind us of Dirty Harry's sober statement “You know she's dead, don't you?” about the young girl that Scorpio has abducted. We also know that Jake has absolutely no intentions of letting the gang get away with this even if they do hand his grandson over, safe and unharmed. He will stop at nothing to hunt everyone one of them down and slaughter them. Perhaps this is Wayne saying that he and Dirty Harry are one and the same – single-minded avengers who live by the old code. And I have no qualms about admitting that I love this outlook. The effects of such a determined and vengeful attitude is not forgotten, of course. Dirty Harry is a social loner – he is well-liked by coffee-shop staff, burger-bar proprietors, occasionally doomed partners and by us, but he will remain a loner in a quest he has no hopes of ever completing. Big Jake McCandles and the majority of Wayne's latter-day heroes may have had families and wives and come from strong communities, but they, too, are loners at heart. They live by the gun and have no illusion about the fragility of their own existence in such a world as they inhabit. It has evidently cost Jake his relationship with Martha and set his own sons on a somewhat rankled and bitter alternate path through life than him. Yet the crucial point that the film makes is just how alike the McCandles Boys are, when it all comes down to it. Jake's acts and attitude in the past have obviously been the root cause of all this, but at the end of the day they are all peas from the same pod. You can see how Jake goes through a series of emotional revelations regarding his family, though, typically of Wayne, none of these developments are overtly announced. But if you know Wayne, you'll spot all sorts of things going on as Jake gets reacquainted with his kin.

    I mentioned in my review for Rio Lobo how poor an actor Robert Mitchum's son Chris was. Well, in the intervening year between Hawks' lacklustre swansong and this exuberant adventure he seems to have learned an awful lot. Playing the third and youngest son of Big Jake, this motorcycle-daredevil-cum-crackshot-rifleman is actually a great character. Like Patrick Wayne's bull-headed and resentful older brother, James, he has a lot to live up to in his estranged father's eyes. Now, Mitchum's soft-voiced likeability has not altered one iota from Rio Lobo – he still sounds very ineffectual – but this is a massively expanded role for him and I think he nails it. There is a maverick streak to him a mile wide, you only have to sit back and admire the way that he continually rides his vintage motorcycle into the ranks of the bandits during the big ambush sequence, but there is also an engaging vulnerability to his rustic charm, and a winning innocence. He genuinely grows on you as the movie goes along, even taking precedence over the more experienced Patrick Wayne in some ways. He may be the butt of a few jokes, but there is much more to this guy than that whiny little voice would have you assume. Patrick Wayne is also on fine and belligerent form. Far less wooden than he would appear in many other films, he sports a marvellous walrus moustache that makes him certainly look the part, and his reactions to the many hidings he gets from his (real) Pa are actually downright believable. You can see the anger in his eyes … anger that is tempered with a bonafide respect that he is struggling to reconcile. You have to wonder just how much of this was merely for the camera and how much envy he really did feel for a father whose shadow he must have known he could never fully emerge from.

    But Patrick isn't the only Wayne son in the film. Remarkably, the grandson that Big Jake takes off after and, touchingly, has never even seen before, is actually played by his own youngest, Ethan. As we have discussed in the review for The Comancheros, in which his daughter Aissa appears, there is genuine warmth and affection in the old man's eyes when he first claps them upon the captured waif and bargains for his release from the clutches of the vile gang. On this occasion the frisson is more acute, which is unquestionably down to the sight of his little boy being held at gunpoint, even if those guns aren't holding real bullets. Ethan Wayne is not exactly a good actor, but this doesn't matter. Once we see Daddy Wayne's dewy eyes, the bonding between the two, as characters in the film, is sincerely and warmly felt even by us.

    The film is also populated with the regular array of genre stars, folks who had been chewing the dust in the wake of the Duke for decades. People like Jim Davis, John Agar (who also battled monsters in a slew of creature-features), Glen Corbett, Harry Carey Jnr. and the ubiquitous Hank Worden fill the ranks on both sides of the moral fence. Richard Boone had appeared in his fair share of Westerns, as well as a number of war-time flicks. He has the look of a sunburned Geoffrey Rush and it is, in a way, sort of tempting to think of his treacherous Fain as a landlocked Captain Barbossa. He is relaxed, erudite and convivial … as well as being hate-filled, callous and as deadly as a rattlesnake. There is an attempt made to provide personality to his crew of varmints. They are all given their own little idiosyncrasies and traits … but all we really need to know is how dangerous and cruel they are.

    I suppose that the only real stray bullet in the casting is with Maureen O' Hara. As stately a cinematic goddess as she was, and a supreme co-star to Wayne in films such as The Quiet Man, Rio Grande and McLintock!, she appears too startlingly wooden to me as the cool-headed matriarch of the McCandles clan. Although this works to a degree – she is supposed to be strong and wilful and actually quite ruthless when it comes to business and looking after her family – she seems to have forgotten that acting styles have evolved and her starched empress is too “removed” from the reality that the film is, otherwise, keenly able to foster. What is nice, however, is the meeting between the two distanced parents, as Jake can't hide his infatuations with her, and Martha can't quite hide that emotional twinkle in her eye. The two stars had an awful lot of history together, and this obviously shines through in a clever scene that ties pride, affection and stubbornness into one. This would be the final time that the pair would share the screen together. With this in mind, it is perhaps another slight niggle that since she is the one who instigates the return of Big Jake, she should perhaps have been allowed to tail-off the whole show too … but, after her grand opening act and subsequent meeting with her long lost hubby we don't see her again. Personally speaking, and despite my claims that O' Hara doesn't really fit in with the program, I would have liked to have seen her character bookend the tale and complete the circuit alongside the old war-horse. But then this is a man's fable, a story that is focussed primarily on the relationships between siblings and between the father and the sons. And, by extension, the relationships that are forged by men on a mission, be they old friends bound by loyalty and devotion or a gaggle of outlaws compelled to act together by mutual distrust and fear. With this in mind, it is easy to see why the dame-like mother can be swept aside once the “boys” are on the case.

    Big Jake is quite a brutal film. The initial raid on the ranch is a virtual massacre. Men, women and even children are gunned-down by the gang. One of the outlaws favours a machete and he gets to use it too. There is a pitch-fork rammed into a face, some choice shotgun-blasts hurling bodies backward through doors in a style that would become quite popular during the hard-hitting seventies, and an extremely high bodycount. Whereas there was still violence and blood in the previous year's Rio Lobo, none of the death and mayhem was shocking, and the film played-out in a rather cosy fashion, Big Jake has its laughs along the way, but it never loses sight of the danger of the situation or the savagery of those involved in it. Sam Sharpnose is a wonderful addition. Actually looking quite the part of an old Cherokee, Cabot is ever-eager to use his knife. Often ordered to use his stealth to take down pursuers and bandit sentries, Sam becomes the Rambo of the piece, using the shadows and the blade in primal hit-and-runs. Even Dog gets in on the act – leaping up at baddies and hauling them from their mounts and then shredding their arms and legs for them. Aye, Sherman doesn't skimp on the messy bits, making Big Jake a much more meaty and adult affair. But then, this wasn't all down to Sherman. The director and close friend of Wayne's was suffering from ill health during the production. Like Howard Hawks before him on Rio Lobo and most evidently Michael Curtiz on The Comancheros, Wayne would have to step in and helm portions of the film when Sherman wasn't fit enough. I find this now-regular arrangement that the Duke would have on some of these productions both bittersweet and cosy. It is great that Wayne and his usual entourage could work in such cahoots, fully in the knowledge that the seams would never show in the finished film, but it must also have been a painful time for all concerned. Like the characters they were portraying in their movies, they, themselves, were acutely aware that they were all coming to the end of their own expansive tenures. Thus, the sense of the adventure coming to an end has a greater resonance.

    Knockabout stuff is dished-out when Jake, for some canny reasons, picks a fight with “the 'orneriest” man in the saloon, but the film brilliantly switches tactics from such genre staples as the chair-smashing brawl to a body-blasting siege in the blink of an eye. The action vignettes come thick and fast. One splendid moment involves a rifle duel between two determined sharpshooters, and there's a great shower-stall gag that works a treat. We can see it coming, but it is still done well. Plus, there aren't that many Westerns around that feature a bravura stunt with a motorcycle leaping across a chasm not once but twice! The dialogue is excellent throughout. Wayne naturally gets all the best lines but then he has some smart performers around him to bounce these verbal gunshots off of. There is a great ongoing quip from all those who meet Jake that John Carpenter had certainly picked-up on and paid homage to in Escape From New York – everyone seems to have heard that he's dead! I'm not sure about the dog, though. As great a little character as he is, this limb-gnawing Lassie, I do believe that we are seeing two separate canines at work in this film. I know that he goes from muddy-black to scruffy brown depending upon the terrain he's been scampering through, but he does look completely different in some scenes. But, for some reason, even this adds to the fun.

    Bernstein's score is a stand-out too. Yes, another stand-out in a long slew of such cult scores as those for The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Comancheros, The Sons Of Katie Elder and True Grit. Obviously, he'd already composed for Wayne pictures before and he knew how to address the audience expectations of seeing the Duke saving the day. For Big Jake, a score that has seen a full release from Prometheus, he creates a typically rousing main theme that launches boundless optimism whenever Jake and his crew are on the move. Like The Magnificent Seven it is a piece of music that may be utterly uplifting but does not detract from the suspense or the deadlier moods of the film. Bernstein would also compose Cahill: United States Marshal and The Shootist for Wayne, his rambunctious, swaggering themes very definitely the voice of the mythical American West, as opposed to Ennio Morricone's more psychologically charged leit-motifs for the Italian branch of the genre. He would even relocate the Duke's gun-totin' persona to the urban badlands when he scored the punishing McQ.

    As usual, William H. Clothier is the man who captures all of this Technicolor action, and Big Jake represents his talents at their best. This is a vast, deep and colourful picture. Just after that witty opening title sequence, we are treated to the sight of the vast McCandles Ranch, which really is luxurious to behold, set, as it is, at the head of a lush valley and rising upon steppes to overlook the range, and we can see the approaching outlaws in the distance over a series of increasingly ominous shots from around the homestead and, more acutely, through various windows. There are still a couple of studio-sets afforded the production when it comes to the night-time camp-fire scenes. It always seems a touch odd to see such painted backdrops in these more modern Westerns, especially when the overwhelming majority of the film is set in the great outdoors and proud of it. But even though this has more to do with the restrictions of the lighting methods this is also a nostalgic throwback to the oaters of old. Visual effects artist Albert Whitlock specialised in glorious matte-paintings, with work on Star Trek: The Original Series, guilty pleasure The Car, John Badham's take on Dracula, Dune and The Thing to his credit. Here, on Big Jake, he supplies the marvellous image of a desert storm that splits the night sky with forked lightning in the background as Wayne and his men move out from camp. Although it doesn’t have a bearing on the story – unless you count it as a stark visual metaphor for Jake’s wrath being the “coming storm” – it is so splendid to look at that it can’t be there just for moody decoration. Either way, it is another great touch in a film that is unexpectedly full of great touches. By the way, he also had a hand in painting the background valley for that daredevil chasm leap!

    Everything that you could wish for in a Western featuring the Grand Old Duke of Yore is here in abundance. Ferocious shoot-outs, pell-mell brawls boasting massive roundhouse swinging fists, sincere, character-invested travelogue comedy, wickedly witty dialogue, a genuinely nasty set of villains and a real sense of tension and menace. And we've got Wayne with a trusty and formidable canine sidekick. Honestly, this is the sort of Wayne Western that you don't want to end. An ensemble-piece that gives everyone a fair crack of the whip. But, more than this, Big Jake is a massive and proud statement that the Duke was still the Man … and you don't dare doubt it for a second.

    So, having ridden with the Duke over this quartet of movies, it is even more unfathomable to me why so many people are wont to slate him as an actor. He may be playing essentially the same sort of broken-down and cantankerous old curmudgeon, but he brings so many nuances to his performances that to say he cannot act is practically libellous. Don't ever be fooled by that gruff grandfatherly approach – Wayne can easily blend in pathos, an anarchic sense of humour, earnest conviction, self-deprecation and a haunted warmth that I've never seen another actor able to deliver in quite such an affecting manner.

    Quite clearly, folks, Big Jake comes very highly recommended indeed.