Starring: John Wayne, Richard Boone
Director: George Sherman
Mood: If you love old Westerns and movies where dogs are the heroes and don’t mind if the rest of the cast is low energy and the dog gets zero thanks for his efforts.
What is it with 1970s Westerns? I just can’t get into them.
I wanted to like Big Jake. It comes highly recommended, and has positive ratings on other review sites. But I spent the entire first hour searching for signs of the John Wayne of earlier films like Rio Grande and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or for something enjoyable in the acting, cinematography, action, or story.
I can’t find anything good to say about it other than that John Wayne fans will probably enjoy seeing him in a film about an aging cowboy doing good ol’ Western stuff with his sons, played by his real-life sons, and produced by another of his sons.
This is one of those highly divisive Westerns, where everybody either thinks it’s ‘one of his best’ or can’t stand it… and guess which side I’m on.
It just makes NO SENSE. The plot packed with implausible actions and events. There are a bunch of one-liners and physical comedy in a family drama, peppered with violence, driven by upbeat music, and wrapped up with a happy ending. (Apparently this is because Wayne was worried about all the violence, and insisted that the writers add comedy.)
Honestly, the dog steals the entire movie. He’s a really good dog.
Big Jake is a unique Western in that takes place later than the typical fare, in 1909. The Wild West clings to its last threads of existence as modern fashions, technology, and politics take over.
A gang of dangerous outlaws rides up to the extravagantly wealthy McCandles ranch and opens fire. Almost everyone is killed, and ‘Little Jake’ is taken hostage. Martha McCandles (Maureen O’Hara) is handed a ransom note (with weirdly impeccable penmanship) demanding one million dollars.
Martha declares that only one man can get this job done – the boy’s aging, deadbeat grandpa, aka her estranged husband Jake (John Wayne). This guy had a bunch of sons then for some reason gave up his family and wealth to become some sort of gunslinging drifter, but he comes right back after receiving a vague, one-sentence message.
A team of Rangers and two of Jake’s other sons set out in motorcars, but not Big Jake. He goes it on horseback, accompanied by his dog and his old ‘Apache’ sidekick Sam (Bruce Cabot). Will Jake save the day, prove that modern tactics and machinery can’t compete with a true cowboy, AND teach his sons how to be real men along the way?
Unfortunately for every single good guy in Big Jake other than Jake himself, they only seem to exist to make John Wayne look good.
- Jake’s wise-cracking, bouncy-haired sons are an obvious appeal to young audiences; they’re played passably by Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son), but the characters’ dialogue and actions render them flat and useless – or the butt of jokes – 90% of the time
- Jake also mocks them, criticizes them, PUNCHES THEM (and y’know, abandoned them), yet we’re supposed to believe how quickly the young men not only respect and forgive him but look up to him in awe
- There’s just no chemistry among this group, so there’s no driving force to the story
- The Texas Rangers barely exist other than to completely fail and give up early on so that Jake and sons have a reason to work together
- Maureen O’Hara is usually a standout, but a) she’s barely in this movie, and b) even she seems to be phoning in her performance; apparently in her memoir she said she “wasn’t crazy” about the part, and only did it for her BFF Wayne
- The most likeable character is Sam Sharpnose, but Bruce Cabot’s brownface makeup and the accent he (thankfully) ditches after one scene are a major buzzkill
Richard Boone delivers a solid villain John Fain, but the character is buried in the family storyline – maybe earlier versions of the script, without Wayne’s demands of added comedy, would have let the audience get into his motives and personality.
But the real disappointment here is that John Wayne is merely a caricature of himself. His lines lack energy or any kind of emotion – not that The Duke was ever big on emotion, but we’re supposed to buy that he cares about his estranged sons enough to go on this mission.
You can’t blame his age or declining physical health, because he made one of my favourite Westerns of all time, The War Wagon, just four years earlier, and the absolutely brilliant The Cowboys the following year. It’s like he just had no reverence for the part.
And don’t even get me started on the ending of Big Jake. After an hour of forced comedy and teachable moments set to a chipper soundtrack, the violence is EXTREMELY jarring. Then the McCandles act like dickheads who don’t give a crap about anyone who saved their asses as long as they win. That’s literally the note you’re left on.
Like I said, the dog comes out on top in this movie. One of the two canine actors, Laddie, won a well-deserved PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) award for his performance.
The premise of Big Jake should have worked. Stories about aging cowboys being pushed out of their lifestyle by new ideas or technology can be super impactful – look at Monte Walsh. John Wayne was more than capable of pulling it off, and the cinematography was pretty good for its time. So the only conclusion I can draw is that the script just set everyone up for a fail.
And yet, screenwriter Harry Julian Fink also wrote Dirty Harry, which came out the same year! I don’t get what happened here. The clash of old and modern technology up against classic Western threats should have been exciting, but I never felt fully engaged and I couldn’t forgive it.
Like I said, Big Jake has glowing reviews on many websites, so there’s obviously an audience for it. Not me – I think I actually developed new wrinkles from scrunching my nose at the TV. And I’m not going to let a movie do that to me more than once.