Sunday 29 July 2007

Big Jake (1971) George Sherman

In the first few years of the 20th century, culture and science had found their way to the east coast of the United States, as highlighted very nicely in the opening sequences to accompany the credits. What's also nicely highlighted is just how little of that had managed to cross the continent to the west. The McCandles ranch was one of the few places to pay any attention at all. They had servants and furnishings and pianos for the young 'uns to learn on, and Martha McCandles doesn't really believe there are still rustlers in 1909, but they also had horses and guns and fighters, and those rustlers are real.

When the ruthless Fain gang comes along to kidnap Little Jake McCandles to ransom for one million dollars, it falls to Martha's estranged husband, Jacob McCandles, the Big Jake of the title, to do something about it. Given that the McCandles are populated by what seems like half the Wayne family, you can imagine that there's not going to be a lot of culture and science involved in the something.

Big Jake is of course John Wayne himself, old by this time but still in full possession of his powers as a screen tough guy. Playing his son James is his real son Patrick Wayne, who had sixteen films already behind him but most of which were John Wayne pictures. Playing his grandson, the kidnapped Little Jake, is his youngest son in real life, Ethan Wayne. It's completely obvious from the first moment two of them shared the same screen that they were all having a ball. There's a lot of chemistry there, which is completely understandable but very welcome nonetheless.

John Wayne is all over this film. Beyond three generations of his family on screen, along with Maureen O'Hara, who had memorably played his wife more than once before, the rest of the cast is populated by Wayne movie regulars and drinking buddies from Richard Boone to Harry Carey Jr. Completing the rescue party, for example, is another son of a famous father, Christopher Mitchum, Robert's son. The picture was produced by his son Michael Wayne, and given that director George Sherman wasn't well for most of the shoot, the Duke covered ended up doing much of the work himself.

It's also about the demise of the old west, something that Wayne, who made very few films out of the saddle, was very close to. Big Jake is the old timer, who doesn't fit well in the modern environment of a million dollar ranch; who sticks with horses, mules and rifles instead of newfangled automobiles, velocipedes and gas powered handguns; and who has both a healthy respect for the Indians and a lack of hesitation to kill the bad guys, whatever colour they happen to be. Unfortunately this is all a little hamfisted and a little early on and would have benefitted from being more subtle and more frequent.

Wayne is excellent, though as he's effectively playing himself, it would be hard not to be. It's surprising that the film is as violent as it is, but it works and after all, we're two years after The Wild Bunch. Patrick is surprisingly good, and even Christopher Mitchum has his moments, though it's also obvious that he ended up in low budget exploitation pictures for a reason. The film also has plenty to offer, depending on what you read into it. The Duke may be the big tough guy but I'd suggest that Maureen O'Hara is the toughest of them all in this one.

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