Apparently aware that his days were numbered, cowboy-cinema legend John Wayne spent the early ’70s looking for a Western that might serve as his swan song in the genre. He ultimately hit the target with The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1976), yet even the also-rans during this period are interesting, partially because Wayne’s stock Western performance was oiled to perfection by this point, and partially because you can feel him writing rough drafts of his Final Statement. So, while Big Jake is not a particularly distinguished picture—it lacks the poetic impact of The Cowboys and the crowd-pleasing closure of The Shootist—it delivers an enjoyable mixture of action, drama, and humor, laced with sly nods to Wayne’s advancing age.
He plays Jacob McCandles, a wealthy rancher with an intimidating reputation that borders on myth, given the fact that most people assume he’s dead. In fact, he’s merely been wandering the wilderness in the years since he fell out with his wife, Martha (Maureen O’Hara), who raised their brood in his absence. When varmints led by ruthless John Fain (Richard Boone) attack the McCandles ranch and kidnap Jacob’s grandson, demanding a $1 million ransom, Martha asks Jake to rescue the boy and wipe out the crooks. He sets out on the mission accompanied by two sons he barely knows, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), plus a long-in-the-tooth Indian pal, Sam (Bruce Cabot). The posse has a few colorful adventures on the road, mostly to do with people trying to steal the ransom money, before their final showdown with the kidnappers.
Written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, the creators of the Dirty Harry character, Big Jake is bloodier and meaner than the usual Wayne fare, so the climax has real tension, although the edginess makes the requisite comic-relief bits feel out of place. And though Boone is entertaining as an amiable psychopath, he and the Duke (plus O’Hara) are the only formidable performers in the picture; Patrick Wayne, the star’s son, and Mitchum, whose dad is movie tough guy Robert Mitchum, are flyweights. As for Wayne, he’s no more an actor here than usual—his strength was inhabiting a larger-than-life persona, rather than incarnating actual characters—but he delivers the macho goods, strutting ridiculously as he shrugs off bullet wounds and other injuries in the name of doin’ what a man’s gotta do. Big Jake is hokum, to be sure, but it’s a step along the path that Wayne followed to his final reckoning with Westerns.
Big Jake: FUNKY