Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Another John Wayne western. Low expectations.
What did I get? Big Jake is a very well put together entertainment. For me it was a source of some relief to learn that the meandering, lackluster Chisum was not an especially good or even typical John Wayne movie — as an outsider to the cult, I was unable to parse the subtle differences that separate a good one from a bad one, and I found the notion that Chisum might define the group depressing. So thankfully, the gap between Chisum and Big Jake is profound. Very little in Chisum really works; in Big Jake, almost everything works. It’s a testament to the difference that good direction, writing, casting, editing, and acting can make.
None of that means that Big Jake anything more than a satisfying entertainment — it’s not — but you know, thank god for small favors. Big Jake follows the formula established by The Searchers and True Grit, and there’s a reason that formula produced films as good as those. Unlike Chisum, in which Wayne played the richest and most powerful man in the vicinity, in Big Jake Wayne plays a more appealingly disreputable character in Jacob McCandles, a gunslinger who hasn’t been in touch with his family in a decade. As with Snake Plisskin in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, people keep telling Jake, “I thought you were dead.” According to Wikipedia, Carpenter was paying homage to this movie.
Big Jake’s task is to deliver a $1 million ransom to the posse of baddies who have kidnapped his young grandson, whom he’s never met. He does the job with his two grown sons, for whom his identity is merely absentee pop; the two sons are played by Wayne’s own son and the son of Robert Mitchum, which is a little odd, but they’re both perfectly fine in the roles. In Big Jake the plot is far more immediately comprehensible and visceral, and most of the action crackles. There are several genuinely amusing scenes between Jake and his sons, one of whom is defiant and the other more affable. The chief bad guy, played by Richard Boone, is an excellent foil for Wayne. It’s also neat that the movie is set in 1909, enabling the use of horseless carriages and even a motorcycle.
What here smacks of 1971? The innocuous little splotches of red that signify “gunshot wound” — that wouldn’t fly today. And also, Jake’s sons hairdos.
IMDB score: 6.9
My score: 7
Director: George Sherman
Writer: Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Bobby Vinton, Glenn Corbett, John Doucette
IMDB synopsis: The McCandles ranch is run over by a gang of cutthroats led by the evil John Fain. They kidnap little Jacob McCandles and hold him for a million dollar ransom. There is only one man who is brave enough and smart enough to bring him back and that man is Big Jake.