Big Jake

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BIG JAKE—-in 1909 Texas, a group of especially brutal outlaws kidnap a child from wealthy ranchers, demanding $1,000,000 ransom. Trouble is, the kid is the grandson of ‘Big Jake McCandles’, growled by John Wayne in a nicely mounted production that tries to be part Wild Bunch, part Butch Cassidy and part traditional Wayne saga, to mixed results.

After a neat title sequence and a vivid kickoff, this 1971 Wayne bruiser alternates jarringly between passages of sentiment, slapstick and slaughter, that odd formula that earlier Duke classics handled so adeptly.

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Much of the blame must go to director George Sherman, who had hacked out over 100 forgettable pictures prior to this.  Ailing at the time, he seemed to have often done things in one take, as so much of it is so sloppy. Wayne took over much of the bossing chore to try and patch up Sherman’s flaccid efforts. Still, continuity errors abound and even Warner’s dependable sound effects are mismatched from one shot to the next.  Wayne regulars Chuck Roberson and Hank Worden were never any threat to Spencer Tracy, but their line readings here honk like an aahooga horn.

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The moments of archly contrived horseplay are so awkwardly tough that you’ll blanch: it’s mean-spirited.  Wayne walks through with professional conviction–he’s just picking up his own million bucks.  Patrick Wayne is a damned handsome fella, and might be a great pal, but here he’s only a bit better than he was when he started many years before (faint praise dept.)  Christopher Mitchum looks like a nice guy.

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The best acting is done by the bad men, etched with various degrees of palpable menace by Richard Boone, Glenn Corbett, Harry Carey Jr., and notably Gregg Palmer, massive and murderous, wielding a machete without compunction.*

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Wayne drinking bud and hanger-on Bruce Cabot is fine, and flame Maureen O’Hara pops in for a few scenes.  There are some neat photographic effects (William H. Clothier once again), and Elmer Bernstein’s score is yeomanly western, though a far cry from his top Wayne salutes for The Comancheros and The Sons Of Katie Elder.

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The violence angle (this is bloody)** seems to have worked, as this was the star’s strongest post-True Grit grosser, offsetting its $4,390,000 tag by earning $16,500,000, the years 10th biggest hit.  Filmed down in Durango, Mexico. Director Sherman called it quits after this, so did O’Hara until one final bow twenty years later in Only The Lonely.  It was Cabot’s (rather a shady sort it seems) last of ten jobs with Wayne: he died of cancer a year later.

With John Doucette, Ethan Wayne, Jim Davis, Bobby Vinton, John Agar, Bernard Fox and Roy Jenson. 110 minutes.

  • I’ll name drop here (just ‘cuz): my brother-in-law knew Gregg Palmer, and I recall my sister talking to him on the phone, at their house in Van Nuys, in the summer of the films release.  I asked her to ask him (Palmer) about Big Jake.  He kind of chortled and said “Oh,yeah, I’m a real mean guy in this. I kill John Wayne’s dog with a machete!”
  • **It was a nasty year on the screen: Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, The Devils, Straw Dogs, The Hunting Party, Hannie Caulder.
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