George Sherman helms Big Jake, a 1971 John Wayne vehicle that really does appear to be a labour of love for the Duke. The picture features a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, who would go on to write Cahill United States Marshal. It also stars two of Wayne’s sons and even features Robert Mitchum’s son, giving it the feel of a family affair.
As with many of the Duke’s movies of this era, Big Jake abounds with personality. It often serves as a conduit for Wayne’s personal values and works its way through several different conflicts. The Finks’ screenplay seems particularly interested in the contrast between the Old Ways and the New Ways, which makes the 1909 setting essential.
The film opens with a raid of the McCandles ranch by the gang of John Fain (Richard Boone). He kidnaps Little Jake (Ethan Wayne) and leaves the kid’s grandmother Martha (Maureen O’Hara) a ransom note. She rejects the offers of the Texas Rangers and the army to seek out the boy and instead sends for her estranged husband Jake (Wayne), who’s farting around in the wilderness with a dog named Dog.
Big Jake comes running and is ready to handle the Fain gang, but his sons are ready as well. Michael (Christopher Mitchum) rides a motorcycle and has a fancy automatic pistol, while James (Patrick Wayne) calls Big Jake “daddy” and rocks a moustache. Big Jake takes off with his sons and the Apache scout Sam (Bruce Cabot) to get his grandson back.
Big Jake starts with an expository sequence that sets up the difference between life out West and life in the easy East. This sort of big city versus big country dialogue is still in the works today (just look at Ted Cruz’s comments about “New York values”) and it sets the stage for this Wayne oater by expressing the star’s values.
His character is out living the life, while people out East are watching ballets and taking in moving pictures. While the New Yorkers are engaging in make-believe drama, Big Jake is introduced saving a man from a hanging. But he’s still part of a dying breed, with the rush of automobiles and powerful weapons drowning out his simple way of life.
And Big Jake’s way of life can be a rough one. He routinely punches his sons. He hasn’t seen either of the young men in 10 years or more and there is some resentment, but the Wayne character plays that up as emotional prattle and concerns himself with getting things done. Even the Apache tells the lads to listen to their father, damn it.
Along with serving as a channel for Wayne’s concerns with aging and fading away, Big Jake tells a story of a rowdy family contending with the confluence of Eastern and Western values. Little Jake is introduced playing the piano and wearing the sort of clothes Big Jake clearly doesn’t like. His sons appear as big city types, but they quickly learn their lessons thanks to the dusky frontier and its bullets.
Cinematographer William J. Clothier, who shot numerous Wayne films as part of Batjac Productions, follows the action in routine fashion. There isn’t anything overly impressive to look at and the picture can feel blinkered at times. Even the final showdown is cloaked in murky darkness and the action isn’t always easy to follow.
The Elmer Bernstein score is often overpowering and the clopping music doesn’t always seem to match what’s on screen. The dippy comic cues are domineering, plus the little splashes of 1970s flavour don’t work in this western’s favour.
Sherman, not in the best of health at the time of Big Jake, does the best he can in the director’s chair but there’s little spark to the picture. Wayne handles his business in front of the camera and behind it when filling in for his pal, but his portrayal lacks the heat and fun of his better westerns. And while this rough condensation of family values is curious, the ride to the rescue lacks essential soul.