There’s only one man brave enough and tough enough for the job. Yep, that’s big bad ass John Wayne. What’s the king of the cowboy’s up to this time? Here’s my review of Big Jake (1971)
What’s going down in Western town?
On the outskirts of the Mexican and USA border sits a peaceful family ranch run by the flamed haired Martha McCandles (Maureen O’Hara). Her children and grandson live with her alongside the stable and kitchen staff. The long horizon across the barren landscape foreshadows a warning as a trail of horses with their riders start to come into view. This is the The Fain Gang. A bunch of low down dirty killers with only death and money on their minds. When they arrive the carnage starts. It ends with Martha’s beloved grandson kidnapped with a ransom on his head for his safe return. The money needed for the kid?… It was a cool million and there was only one man for the job.
Who’s our righteous hero gunslinger?
Jacob McCandles (John Wayne) famously known as Big Jake was a formidable character. A no nonsense vintage man of the wild west. The turn of the century was beginning to change the landscape but you could sure guarantee that Big Jake wasn’t gonna be fitting into this new world any time soon. With Martha presenting him with his favourite two old trusty Greener shotguns there really was no doubt there was only one man to deal with this gang of thugs and murderers.
Does he have a trusty side kick?
Big Jake has his trusty four legged friend forever by his side. The collie is affectionately called Dog and does everything Jake says. A man’s best friend.
Cowgirl love interest?
Martha McCandles was the the estranged wife of Big Jake. He’d been unfaithful and left after having three sons together. You could see that they still loved and respected each other. She was a strong independent woman. With the ransom set at a colossal amount she would have to scraped together every dollar. Just the sheer size of the red strong box was tell that the number was huge. This was the safe return of her grandson she was paying for.
A collection of low down and dirty bad boy cowboys?
Oh my yes this bunch are real low down and dirty. Pure lawless killers. Lead by the charismatic John Fain (Richard Boone) with a twinkle in his eye of pure evil. His gang, The Fain Gang, are on this murderous mission to get their prize. The young boy, Little Jake (Ethan Wayne). The film begins with a fantastic introduction with the narrator going through each member of this formidable gang one by one. You can watch it on the video below. The beginning of that clip also shows the turning of the era and the big changing tides of the time.
Sheriff in town?
Buck Dugan (John Doucette) probably fits this part the nearest as the leader of the Texas Rangers brought in to help deliver the ransom.
Big Jake asks for the help from his best and most trust friend, after Dog of course. Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot) would be most welcome on any dangerous mission. He reads the land, good with a knife, even turns into a younger, different looking man, when he runs and jumps to take down a man on his horse. “You do realise it’s a stunt double Mikey?” “Oh really! I thought he had special morphing Native American mystical super powers?“. Ok! whatever, we all need a Sam Sharpnose as a right hand man, he’s got your back.
A rootin and tootin old fella?
There’s a few old boys about but no rootin and tootin. So I’ll add Scottish shepherd, played my Welshman Bernard Fox, condemned ready to be swung from a hanging tree. Luck shines down bringing our righteous hero along the path. I’m sure if he had it to hand that shepherd would sure be rootin and tootin on his bagpipes.
One of best scenes.
Big Jake is from the old era of the West. In front of him the future is slowly making its way in. Metal four wheel contraptions pumping out steam and smoke chug their way through the uneven ground. A man, his young son, in goggles whizzes about annoyingly on a motorbike. Big Jake looks as he sits proudly on his trusty four legged friend, “What! Not the poor Dog? How cruel! John Wayne’s eating way too many beans over the years. He’ll crush that poor little collie dog!“. “Oi doffus! His horse man, his horse!“
Anyhow, there’s lots of great scenes. The final battle is great, Big Jake punching his kids out is pretty funny too and the big saloon brawl is silly but fun. If I had to pick one moment I might go for the two REO Motor Car Company early automobiles filled with rangers overtaking Jake and Sam on their horses and disappearing into the distance. Soon hitting trouble and with blown out tyres and steam escaping from the engines as they take gun fire. As Jake catches up he just strolls on by the carnage on his horse with a knowing glance to Buck Dugan and his Rangers as he carries on with the mission.
The quick-draw question shootout round.
- Shoot-out ratio.
Plenty of gun battles and pistol fisticuffs.
- Someone has to have the fastest hands?
The young and cocky Michael McCandles (Christopher Mitchum) sure thinks he is with his fancy brand new Bergmann automatic pistol. Which he soon shows he’s completely inept at handling. With bullets flying all over place and every one diving for cover. It’s time for yet another ticking off from Dad.
- Saloon fight.
The perfect distraction means to pick a fight with the big baddest brawniest man in the bar saloon. Big Jake takes a beating and then in a funny scene he puts his hands up and says hang on a minute this might be a case of mistaken identity.
- Hang on a minute is that so-in-so?
Way too many faces to write about so I’ll just go for Big Jake’s son. First up is moody pants older son James McCandles is played by John Wayne’s real son Patrick Wayne. With his good looks you will probably best know him as the hero Sinbad from watching the action adventure good fun film Sinbad and The Eye of the Tiger (1977). Well that is if you managed to take your eyes off Ray Harryhausen’s or Jane Seymour’s marvelous creations. Then there’s Michael McCandles (Christopher Mitchum). Wide-eyed and carefree he has a love for what the future technologies might bring, even when they don’t fare him well. With that surname and that chin he can only be the son of the legend, Robert Mitchum. Which leaves us with Little Jake, the kidnapped kid. Big Jake’s grandson from yet another son, Jeff McCandles (Bobby Vinton). Little Jake is actually played by John Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan Wayne.
No not here. Scalping, I believe, hopefully, had stopped in the 20th Centry.
- The best little whorehouse in the west?
Passing through a party town of Mexico and the ladies are out ready to dance and make some coin.
- Bank robbery?
No bank robbery but there’s plenty of temptation with the reinforced red chest filled with a million dollars on show preached on the back of a bucking mule.
- Spittoon, cactus, tumbleweed or beans!
Don’t be stupid and find yourself in firing distance of our tobacco chewing Big Jake. You’ve been warned. He can take an eye out from 20 paces!! There’s lots of cactus on show but sure I didn’t noticed a tumbleweed this time round. We all know the raw power of beans was flowing through all these guys digestive systems!
How’s the look of the land?
Many incredible landscape filming locations were used across the state of Durango in Mexico. You get the classic western look of a vast cowboy driven regions with valleys and mountain in the backdrop. Plus a few rivers for the horses to gallop though.
Big Jake directed by George Sherman was a Western film making machine. He has so many credits to his name, though Big Jake would become his last big picture after 30 odd years behind the camera. It would become one of the biggest hits of the year at the box office too.
It is written by husband and wife double act of Harry and Rita Fink. They would create the legendary inspector with the 44 Magnum, the one and only Dirty Harry.
Did I learn a factoid?
I thought this bit of trivia was nice. Big Jake would be the final film John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara would work together on. They’d previously been in Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Wings of Eagles (1957), and McLintock! (1963). It is said that Maureen considered John her first and best friend. Even going so far as naming a wing of the home she shared with her husband, General Charles Blair, the John Wayne wing.
One other piece of trivia on a personal note. General Charles Blair would be Maureen O’Hara final husband. He was a Brigadier General with the USAF and in their later life had a flying boat with a seat in the cockpit just for his wife. It was a Sandringham VP-LVE called the “Southern Cross” before having it’s name changed to “Beachcomber”. It is one of the star attractions at Solent Sky an aviation museum in Southampton. I’ve been a few times and sat in the pilot seat and in Maureen’s chair next to the ashtray she is said to have smoked like a chimney in.
I’d missed seeing this one out of the Wayne’s gigantic film cannon. So it was a very pleasant surprise. It has big Sam Peckinpah influences, especially with the beginning and end shoot out however the comedy, which I very much enjoyed, does take the harshness out of it. I even liked the repeated “I thought you were dead?” line every time Big Jake turns up. It’s all very quintessential John Wayne and brilliant for it. I had a wonderful time. It’s on Amazon Prime at time of writing.
Feel free to let me know what you thought of this one?
Keep those eyes TV shaped whilst watching great movies.