Big Jake a Fun if Flawed Romp
by Kristin Battestella
John Fain (Richard Boone) and his gang – featuring fast gun O'Brien (Glenn Corbett), crusty Pop Dawson (Harry Carey Jr.), and the machete wielding John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer) – injure Jeffrey McCandles (Bobby Vinton) and abduct his son Little Jake (Ethan Wayne) after a violent massacre at the McCandles ranch to open 1971's Big Jake. Matriarch Martha (Maureen O'Hara) knows this kidnapping is more than the army or the Texas Rangers can handle, so she telegrams her estranged husband Big Jake McCandles (John Wayne), who sets out to find the young boy along with his bitter older son James (Patrick Wayne), the progressive, motorcycle riding younger son Michael (Christopher Mitchum), longtime Apache tracker Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), and his dog...Dog.
Photo slides, black and white footage, and newsreel style narration fill the audience in on Big Jake's 1909 setting, for the cosmopolitan East has moved into the twentieth century while the lawless Old West is still populated with desperate men living in the past. As a sophisticated pillar of the community wealthy with staff, finery, and new technology such as 1911 experimental pistols, the McCandles spread is an easy target for the lingering hang 'em now and ask questions later gunslinger infamy. The similarly crusty versus next generation attitudes also have several interesting dramatic clashes – the pups are ready to leave all the old ways behind but lovely conversations on when the West was free and buffalo plentiful recall the fading pioneer spirit. The trouble with Big Jake is that the picture never decides if it is going to be a gritty, regretful piece or a teach these youngin's a lesson comedy. Brutal violence and bloody action set pieces are meant to lure younger audiences with explosive automobiles, motorcycle feats, and wild shootouts. The picture doesn't stay this way, however, but trades the western aggression for a seventies audience with a humorous horseback road trip where quips are rampant and every son takes a humble on the chin – no matter how old he is. Neither of these schools is bad at all. Sure, the choreography is at times nonsensical and the gore uneven, but the stunts are entertaining. Those quips also, are to die for – from every “Dog!” to the repeated response to Big Jake as “I thought you were dead?” (“The next person who says that, I'm going to shoot, so help me.”) Familiar John Ford company casting and real life father and sons interplay add to the winks as horror worthy scary zooms and escalating score elevate the knife wielding violence. Unfortunately, all of these elements just don't quite go together. Big Jake may have had too many cooks in the kitchen with aging director George Sherman (The Comacheros) and John Wayne's behind the scenes influence. Wayne is said to have directed when Sherman could not, and it's believable thanks to the film's polarizing tones – which also seem bent on recapturing McLintock's past success with confusing ties to 1970's Chisum and Rio Lobo thanks to repeated Batjac cast and crew. Big Jake's ending is also incredibly abrupt with no resolution to any of the violence or deaths and no return follow through compared to the lengthy McCandles Ranch assault that started everything. The rousing action score is woefully out of place in swelling over the final still frame – an all smiles portrait that would have us believe Big Jake was a happy family bonding experience. Fortunately, the individual confrontations and rivalry moments rescue the uneven pace and mixed narrative with Big Jake remaining infinitely watchable so long as you enjoy the pieces rather than analyze the whole.
Let's admit John Wayne is old and looking past his prime in Big Jake, but that's on form for the eponymous character – who still has enough wallop to his punch, point to his aim, discipline for his sons, and chess game versus the bad guys. Jacob McCandles knows what he is doing has risks but he will do it to save a kidnapped boy. He acts gruff, but Big Jake has an underlying tender, as seen in his rescue of a lynched sheep herder and his embarrassment over wearing reading glasses. Big Jake is surprised to hear his grandson is named after him and takes pride in his sons' respective grit – different grades though each of them may be. Wayne has several great one on ones in the battle of wills with Boone, and point blank there should have been more of the criminally underused Maureen O'Hara as Martha McCandles. Rather than an ongoing wink at their film partnership in the likes of Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and McLintock, the briefly seen rocky McCandles' relationship becomes more like stunt casting a la mellow crooner Bobby Vinton as the third but essentially forgotten by the end of the movie McCandles son. Bruce Cabot's (King Kong) lovely Apache Sam Sharpnose starts cliché as if this were a John Ford cavalry picture from twenty years prior. However, Sam becomes realistic in his wear and tear. He's old, catching one of his quarry but not both. Sam remembers the buffalo and the good old days but has enough crafty up his sleeve when Big Jake needs it. He's loyal, reliable, and essential to this mission. Big Jake might have been neat as just a buddy picture – one last hurrah with an appearance from good old Hank Worden (The Searchers) of course. And seriously, shout out to the two collies from the Lassie/Weatherwax family who portrayed Dog. The animal choreography is well done, enabling Dog to assist Big Jake honorably with his own special canine zeal.
Gang leader John Fain has a plan, a darn good plan, and poncho wearing Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel) is delightful in this last outlaw heist. It looks like he's succeeding at this cat and mouse for most of Big Jake, too. He's calling the shots and is always one step ahead. We believe his ruthless – Fain's black hat stands up to Big Jake's long shadow as two relics of an earlier age. It's great to see their tactics and threats turned, and fellow John Ford Stock Company veteran Harry Carey Jr. (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) is unrecognizable as Fain's icky old henchman Pop Dawson. Pop is the nasty flip side to good old Sam, however, this villainous gang is both reasonably big enough for its killer kidnapping task as well as unfortunately too big to feature all of its members. Glenn Corbett (Route 66) is in only a handful of unnecessary scenes, adding some kind of angry “half-breed” history to Big Jake that goes nowhere while wonderfully nasty machete man Gregg Palmer (The Shootist) also has precious few scenes to develop his vile. After the opening violence, both gang members seem absent for most of the movie until featured moments in the final act that have these supposedly so bads quickly and easily dismissed. It might have been interesting if Corbett's O'Brien had some kind of personal enemy history with Patrick Wayne's James McCandles, mirroring each troop's members while further developing each son's parental issues. The two played brothers in Shenandoah, but sadly, their late fast draw duel becomes a blink and you miss it moment in the rushed finale.
Speaking of Patrick Wayne, as a kid I loved him in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The People That Time Forgot. He was good looking, had charisma, and did branch out into other roles, but unfortunately Patrick Wayne will probably always be considered as getting a free pass just for being John Wayne's son. That's perhaps never more so than here with Patrick playing Big Jake's angry elder son, and the family in joke adds a lot of cranky fun. James sarcastically calls Jake “Daddy” and mocks his reputation as a womanizer as difficult to believe. We understand why he has a chip on his shoulder, and there is some character development as James goes from being embarrassed by his dad tossing him in the mud puddle (“Since you don't have any respect for your elders, it's time somebody taught you to respect your betters!”) to mastering the prototype pistol and fighting side by side with Big Jake. Of course, there is no resolution to the bonding – we don't know if Jake stayed on the ranch assisting James or if the sons joined their father roaming the remnants of the West. Though I loved Christopher Mitchum (Rio Lobo) for a hot minute, too, it's easy to suspect his out of place casting was likewise because he's Robert Mitchum's son. His Michael is the younger, hip child with the latest gadgets and style, but his delivery is out of sync with everyone else. Michael learns how to get rough and tumble with his weaponry in their quest, but teaching him to kill and beating him up a few times seems like a backward journey for the character. Honestly, there should have been only two or even one McCandles son – imagine Big Jake on the trail with a progressive son who is at angry at him and willing to get radical with his neat gear to save his own kidnapped son. That's tension!
The aforementioned violence in Big Jake is also bemusingly uneven. People rise up from a perfectly safe hidden location to take aim at the bad guy who's ready and waiting to shoot. Sometimes the resulting gunfire is bloody with superfluous blow back and exaggerated destruction, yet other casualties merely slump over with no clear wounds indicating injury. Is it a technical error or uncertainly about what was allowed in a post-The Wild Bunch genre? Bandaged legs and arms in slings look worse then they are with injured men immediately up and running back into the fray. Fortunately, all the western styling is here with fitting ranches, stables, horses, and rugged Northern Mexico scenery. O'Hara's lovely Gibson Girl frocks, feathers, and parasols invoke a turn of the century modern, but the sweet new supposedly better than horses automobiles turn out to be none too practical for the roughness on the Mexican border. That motorcycle leaping over quarry and skirting enemy mounts is dandy, but not knowing how to handle that gas pistol isn't. Even Little Jake is dressed in one of those tiny Fauntleroy suits – giving cowboy hat wearing Big Jake a double take when he sees him. Despite the back and forth and weak conclusion, Big Jake does tie the old versus new together well with veteran wit, fast draws, and sharpshooting plans coming together amid the traditional western knock 'em drag out. The seemingly serious kidnapping plot, violence, bloody shootouts, and machete implications may be tough viewing for super young audiences. However, the lack of dramatic resolution means Big Jake isn't the dark, heavy western it initially appears to be. Personality, zingers, and lighthearted moments put the big names head to head in charming, if not properly strung together vignettes that remain entertaining. Flaws and uneven tone aside, Big Jake is an enjoyable piece for John Wayne fans, western audiences, and movie lovers looking for some old school cool.