Friday, July 8, 2011


Several things about director George Sherman’s last western shoot’em-up “Big Jake” (** out of ****)are significant. First, this represented the last time John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara co-starred in a film. Earlier, Wayne and O’Hara made “Rio Grande” (1950), “The Quiet Man” (1952), “The Wings of Eagles” (1957), and “McLintock!” (1963). O’Hara has two scenes in “Big Jake,” but she appears in only one with the Duke. They neither kiss nor do they embrace such is the animosity that keeps them apart. Second, this was the tenth and last time Wayne and Sherman worked together. Sherman had called the shots on several strictly average "Three Mesquiteers" B-movie westerns with Wayne for Republic Studios back in the late 1930s. Reportedly, Wayne stepped in to helm some scene when the ailing Sherman could not. Third, this violent turn-of-the-century oater also re-teams Wayne with a poncho-clad Richard Boone as a slimy main villain. Previously, they appeared together in “The Alamo” (1960) and later confronted each other again in a bar room shoot-out in Wayne’s final western “The Shootist” (1976).

Scenarists Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink penned the formulaic screenplay about the kidnapping of a wealthy but aging cattleman’s grandson. The Finks were responsible for Don Siegel’s controversial police thriller “Dirty Harry” with Clint Eastwood and later “Cahill U.S. Marshal.” Unfortunately, despite some serviceable dialogue, “Big Jake” amounts to a sloppy, unsavory western with no sense of closure. The villains are a dastardly bunch, but they never truly challenge the heroes. The set-piece in an abandoned collection of buildings generates nothing in the way of suspense and tension. Further, “Big Jake” lacks the characteristic scene where Wayne one-ups an opponent. The closest thing to this scene is a shower scene, but it doesn’t cut the muster compared to scenes like in “McLintock!,” “Chism,” “The Train Robbers,” and “The Undefeated.” Some scenes that are clearly horseplay are embarrassingly bad, such as the automatic pistol scene at the river. Not only should O’Hara have returned for a final scene, but some sympathy should have been made to the hero’s dog and his Native American friend. As “Big Jake,” John Wayne spends most of his time riding around Mexico trying to keep himself and his two half-witted sons alive. One of his sons recoils at the thought of killing an animal to provide meal for supper and gets angry when he learns that he has killed somebody over a chest filled with paper clippings. Although this is largely a traditional Wayne western, “Big Jake” pits the weapons and transportation of an old-fashioned western (horses, revolvers, and shotguns) against the new-fangled western where people ride in cars or on motorcycles and wield automatic weapons. Predictably, ‘Big’ Jake wins the day with his old-fashioned approach. Sherman does a solid job of establishing the setting of this sagebrusher and the time period with a lengthy prologue.

John Fain (Richard Boone of “The Alamo”) leads a gang of murderous cutthroat outlaws who raid the McCandles ranch. This opening shoot-out qualifies as the bloodiest gunfight in a Wayne western. When bullets hit bodies, huge smears of red paint appear. Remember, the Duke objected to those exploding blood squibs in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and felt that it was obscene. Wayne’s second oldest son Patrick co-stars with him and Wayne’s youngest son Ethan Wayne plays the abducted child. A gallery of seasoned western character actors fleshes out this rugged western with Bruce Cabot, John Doucette, John Agar, Roy Jenson, Jim Davis, Hank Worden, and Harry Carey, Jr.

“Big Jake” unfolds with a historical prologue that contains narration accompanied by a slide show of ancient photographs. “1909, The Edwardian golden days. Genteel civilization had come to England, the continent, and the eastern United States. New York rivaled London and Paris as one of the great metropolises of the world. Albert Einstein had expounded his theory of relativity back in 1905 and science had brought us the wonders of the modern world. Culture and refinement had arrived on the east coast of America. Caruso was singing Pagliacci in the Met. Arturo Toscanini was conducting. The Barrymores were performing and the Ziegfeld Girl was the rage. 1909 in the western part of the 46 United States was not so refined. The surviving Indian warriors were now being rounded up by the U.S. Army. In Washington, William Howard Taft, 300 pounds of pure Republican, was president and life was comfortable. In other parts of the country men were fighting each other and the elements. In New York department stores, a lady could buy maxis and boots and live in style. Out west, they didn’t think about style, just living. Eastern empire builders had secured their fortunes, the Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies. There were empires in the west, too, such as the great McCandles Ranch. But these huge ranches were held together only by having enough men and guns.

Notre Dame teams were playing football with end Knute Rockne catching the forward pass. In the Arizona Territory, another team, the Arizona Rangers, were busy just trying to keep the peace. Anna Pavlova, the prima ballerina of the Russian Ballet was dancing “Swan Lake.” The dance-hall girl in the Klondike gold rush saloons was somewhat different. By 1909, still photographs had come to life. Motion pictures had been born with The Great Train Robbery. While that make-believe was on the movie screens, nine men crossed the Rio Bravo into Texas. The turbulent years between the Civil War and the turn of the century brought out the best in some people, but in others it brought out the worst. Example: O’ Brien, a half-breed Apache, born of a Chiricahua mother and Irish father. A professional gunfighter, one of the last of his kind. Pop Dawson, rode with the James boys in Kansas and Missouri. Said to have murdered more than a dozen men, one for as little as seven dollars. Trooper, name unknown. A back-shooter. Considered a coward. Reputed to have been a cavalry soldier sometime in the past, but not to the personal knowledge of his confederates. William Fain, youngest of the Fain brothers, favors a shotgun, a Greener, for its bloody killing effect at short range. James William Duffy. At age 14, killed his first man, who was an admirer of his prostitute mother. Dead shot with a rifle. William Devries, young Billy, not quite 21. This raid was thought to have been his first outlaw act. Walt Devries, his older brother by twenty years. He looks more like a farmer than a professional killer. John Goodfellow maybe the worst of them. An indiscriminate killer. Women, children, no consequence at all. Prefers to work close. Favors a razor-edged machete.”

Since most of the ranch hands are away on a round-up, Fain and his trigger-happy marauders have little trouble when they start blasting away after some friendly conversation with the foreman. Without a qualm, they wound and/or kill ten men, women and children few qualms. They wound McCandles' eldest son Jeff (Bobby Vinton of “Surf Party”) and kidnap the youngest McCandles son, eight-year old (Ethan Wayne) and post a a ransom of $1 million. ‘Big’ Jake McCandles’ wife, Martha (Maureen O'Hara of “The Quiet Man”) summons her estranged husband through some messengers. They meet at a railway station, and she hands him the ransom note. Jake fishes out his spectacles to peruse it. Jake and Martha have been estranged for almost a decade, but they both love little Jake and ‘Big Jake’ vows to bring him back. Waiting for their father at the depot are his sons James McCandles (real-life son Patrick Wayne of “The Alamo”) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum of “Rio Lobo”) and their reception is soured by James’ sarcasm toward his father. James calls him “Daddy” in a snide voice and Jake pulls him off his horse and hurls him into a mud puddle. Jake informs James with any subtlety: "You can call Dad, you can call me Father, you can call me Jacob and you can call me Jake. You can call me a dirty old son-of-a-bitch, but if you EVER call me Daddy again, I'll finish this fight." Jake takes custody of a huge red strongbox with a million dollars in it and rides off with his old friend Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot) while James and Michael follow Buck and the Texas Rangers.

A conventional and often predictable oater, “Big Jake” springs no real surprises. The revelation that the strong box that our heroes have been guarding contains nothing but paper clippings comes as no surprise. No sooner have Buck and the Texas Rangers entered Mexico than Fain’s men ambush them, kill three of them, and shoot up their cars. Meanwhile, it appears that Michael has been shot because he crashes his motorcycle and lays sprawled in the dust. Jake is more surprised than we are when his son gets up. Naturally, this calls for Wayne to punch his lights out. Jake leaves the Texas Rangers to fend for themselves while he rides out to the rendezvous with Fain. At about a hour into the plot, Jake and Fain meet in Jake’s camp. Fain instructs them to go to the nearby Mexican town of Escondero and await their orders. Later that evening, gunmen try to storm room number eight where our heroes are lying in wait for them. Jake, James, and Sam leave Michael alone in the room. Jake stages a distraction so Sam can slip back into the room, while James guns down to bullies in the saloon with his automatic pistol. Not long afterward, a suspicious Pop Dawson fetches Jake and company and they ride out to meet Fain and ransom the youngster. It is a classic stand-off again when Fain and Jake confront each other with Little Jake in plain sight. Michael has ascended to the top of water tower and uses his high-powered rifle to knock out a sniper in an adjacent belfry. What started as an interesting scene degenerates into a free-for-all shoot-out without a shred of suspense. The brute with a machete manages to slash poor old Sam to death and later kills the dog. Jake throws a lantern at Fain and lights him up before he perforates him with a bullet. No sooner has Little Jake been reunited with his family than the film freeze-frames them and comes to an end.

“Big Jake” is a mediocre Wayne effort with more blood than usual, but it is nothing memorable. Elmer Bernstein provides an okay orchestral score.