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Big Jake, released in 1971, is one of many westerns that ride the trail blazed by The Searchers, the 1956 classic by John Ford that some critics consider the genre's all-time-greatest film. Again the hero is played by John Wayne, and again he's a tumbling tumbleweed of a man who rediscovers family values when deadly marauders snatch an innocent child away from his kinfolk. There are major differences, though. This time the victim is a boy instead of a girl, the journey to find him lasts for days instead of years, and the villains are kidnappers demanding a huge ransom - the picture's working title was The Million Dollar Kidnapping - rather than Comanche warriors who induct the stolen youngster into their tribe.
The biggest difference between the two movies is that The Searchers was directed by John Ford, whereas Big Jake was directed by George Sherman, a veteran of many westerns but hardly a towering Hollywood figure. Sherman had directed Wayne in some of the "Three Mesquiteers" western programmers he made for Republic during the late 1930s, and Wayne invited him to direct Big Jake, produced by Wayne's own Batjac production company, as a sort of nostalgic reunion, even though Sherman was having health problems that forced Wayne to supervise much of the shooting himself.
The movie was also a reunion in other ways. One of Wayne's real-life sons, Michael, produced it; another one, Patrick, plays James McCandles, hero Jake McCandles's rebellious son; and a much younger Wayne offspring, Ethan-named after the Searchers hero--plays Little Jake McCandles, the kidnapped kid. Talk about family values! On top of this, Robert Mitchum's son Christopher plays Big Jake's better-behaved son, Michael, and Maureen O'Hara lends an extra touch of class as Martha McCandles, the hero's estranged but secretly affectionate wife, who has only a couple of scenes before disappearing from the picture. O'Hara wrote in her memoir, 'Tis Herself, that while she "wasn't crazy" about this small and marginal part, "it was Duke [Wayne], so I agreed to do it." She enjoyed working again with character actors from the old Ford stock company, but wasn't pleased when some of her shots with Wayne were cut due to the film's excessive length. This was the fifth and final film she and Wayne appeared in together - the first was Ford's excellent Rio Grande in 1950 - and it was the tenth and final movie for Wayne and Sherman, who didn't direct any more features between Big Jake in 1971 and his death twenty years later.
Big Jake has an old-fashioned story arc. It begins with a massacre, when the outlaws headed by evil John Fain, ominously acted by the brooding Richard Boone, gun down most of the McCandles household before grabbing Little Jake and galloping away to prepare their ransom demand. It ends with an elaborate shootout involving a distant sniper, a hidden Derringer, the kidnapped boy with a hood over his head, and a trunk that's supposed to contain a million dollars but is really stuffed with newspaper. All this is filmed according to tried-and-true western conventions, accompanied by an Elmer Bernstein score that trots out almost every musical formula associated with Wild West movies.
But at a time when directors like Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman were revolutionizing the western with pictures such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), being traditional was a somewhat daring maneuver. And to make sure they wouldn't seem too conservative, the filmmakers hedged their bets by going for the unexpected now and then: a faux-documentary introduction during the opening credits, a few more squibs and a bit more blood than Wayne's pictures usually contain, and a sequence where Big Jake's men race after Fain's gang in turn-of-the-century horseless carriages. The screenplay was written by Harry Julian Fink, who had worked with Boone on the memorable CBS-TV series Have Gun-Will Travel in the early 1960s, and R. M. Fink, whose other projects with her husband include Dirty Harry, also a 1971 release, and the Wayne vehicle Cahill, U.S. Marshal two years later. (Paramount asked Wayne to play Dirty Harry Callahan, but he was too booked up with Big Jake, The Cowboys (1972), and Rio Lobo (1970) to accept.) Like other writers who worked on Wayne's late movies, from True Grit in 1969 through The Shootist in 1976, the Finks are savvy enough to give him funny lines about his relatively advanced age, which Wayne didn't try to hide, and probably couldn't have anyway. They also let him reprise his celebrated Searchers tagline: "That'll be the day!"
Apart from Wayne's rich performance, the best thing about Big Jake is the cinematography by William H. Clothier, who takes spectacular advantage of the film's locations in Durango, Mexico, and other regions, such as El Saltito, where the crew found a waterfall so gorgeous that they included it in more shots than the story required. Wayne was fond of Durango for practical reasons, including union-free work and salary rules that cut down expenses for this and other Batjac productions. But he also loved the way its Sonora Desert surroundings fostered an authentically quaint atmosphere by keeping the modern world at a distance, and you can sense his affection on the screen. Big Jake was a modest hit in 1971, pulling in rentals of $7 million, and while it's no masterpiece, it holds up reasonably well today.
Producer: Michael A. Wayne
Director: George Sherman
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, R. M. Fink
Cinematographer: William H. Clothier
Film Editing: Harry W. Gerstad
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: Elmer Bernstein
With: John Wayne (Jacob McCandles), Richard Boone (John Fain), Patrick Wayne (James McCandles), Christopher Mitchum (Michael McCandles), Bruce Cabot (Sam Sharpnose), Maureen O'Hara (Martha McCandles), Bobby Vinton (Jeff McCandles), John Doucette (Buck Duggan), Glenn Corbett (O'Brien), Jim Davis (lynching party boss), John Agar (Bert Ryan), Harry Carey, Jr. (Pop Dawson), Gregg Palmer (John Goodfellow), Roy Jenson (bathhouse gunman), Virginia Capers (Delilah), William Walker (Moses Brown), John McLiam (army officer), Bernard Fox (shepherd), Don Epperson (saloon bully), Jim Burk (Trooper), Dean Smith (James William "Kid" Duffy), Ethan Wayne (Little Jake McCandles), Hank Worden (Hank), Tom Hennesy (Mr. Sweet), Chuck Roberson (Texas Ranger), Robert Warner (Will Fain), Jeff Wingfield (Billy Devries), Jerry Gatlin (Stubby), Everett Creach (Walt Devries).
by David Sterritt