Released in summer 1971, just over a year after its star took home his Oscar for True Grit, Big Jake is a fairly typical late-period John Wayne picture: it's a personality piece, catered specifically to its aging star, and enjoyable for his fans. Produced by Wayne's son Michael for Duke's Batjac shingle, co-starring sons Patrick and Ethan (and pal Robert Mitchum's son Christopher), Big Jake was a family affair and feels like it; it's a fairly laid-back effort, neither as challenging nor breathless as some of Wayne's 1960s vehicles. But it has some good lines and well-executed set pieces, and lets the Duke do what he does best.
He plays the title character, one Jacob McCandles, and gets one of his best-prepared entrances--a full 19 minutes into the 109-minute film. There's quite a bit of scene-setting and throat-clearing, including a lengthy (but informative) historical introduction, establishing the time-frame (it's set in 1909), and then an introduction of the villains, whose dastardly deeds are rattled off in a rap-sheet monotone narration that recalls Dragnet. These bandits are so humorless and bloodthirsty that they'll even kill women and children--which they do, in a forceful opening action sequence. The target is the estate of Martha McCandles (Maureen O'Hara) and the family Jake left behind; ranch hands and servants are murdered, a son is shot, and grandson Little Jake (Ethan Wayne) is kidnapped and held for a million dollars' ransom. Reviewing her options (sending the money with soldiers or rangers), Martha grits her teeth and announces that the job is "a very harsh and unpleasant kind of business... and will require a very harsh and unpleasant kind of man." You see where she's going before you get to the end of the line, but when she gets there, and it cuts to the tight close-up of John Wayne squinting into a rifle sight, you can't help but grin.
So Big Jake and an assortment of old friends and estranged sons head out to get Little Jake back, perhaps paying the ransom, perhaps not. (Oh, come on, it's a John Wayne movie--you think he's just gonna hand over a million bucks to the bad guys?) Because of the later-than-usual time frame, this is a Western that sets up Duke as an old dog refusing to learn new tricks, whether they be more advanced weaponry or the use of automobiles over horses (the image of Wayne on horseback alongside a fleet of motorcars is an inspired visual joke). Of course, the old man is usually right, though he occasionally and begrudgingly goes along with his sons' ideas--once they get a good whallopin'.
Director George Sherman (who had been directing Westerns since the 1930s, first for quickie second-tier studios, then for TV) gives us plenty of Wayne talking tough and kicking ass, even when his pudgy shape and advanced age render his stunts more than a little questionable (a dilemma effectively, and memorably, avoided by the humor and candor of True Grit). But his direction is somewhat uninspired; the cutaways of O'Hara looking around worriedly during fight scenes are comically out-of-date, and the use of painted backdrops in a nighttime camp scene is painfully obvious.
Still, the picture rolls along amiably enough, and tightens up nicely in the third act. The screenplay by Dirty Harry scribes Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink gives Wayne some nice comic beats (like the late barroom brawl and his broad Spanish singing during a staged shower). There's also a running joke of Jake introducing himself to people who muse, "I thought you were dead"; presumably John Carpenter was a fan of the film. The Finks also write Wayne plenty of great lines; when one villain thinks he has the drop on Jake and growls "No hard feelings," Wayne blows him away unexpectedly and retorts, "The hell there ain't." When he's asked if the sight of blood bothers him, he replies, "Only my own."
Wayne's performance has some sensitive moments as well; there's a wonderful little catch in his voice when he first lays eyes on Martha again, a moment no doubt helped along by his history with O'Hara (this was their fifth and final onscreen pairing). Ditto the flash of emotion that flickers across his face when he sees the boy--this is good, understated Wayne acting. In Richard Boone, he has a first-rate villain to play off of, and the folksy way he deals with Boone in their first meeting, refusing to show his hand, is subtle and effective.
The 1080p VC-1 transfer is, for the most part, stellar. As with many other studio Westerns of the era, saturation is deep and bright, if somewhat over the top (Martha's lime green dress almost hurts to look at). But the image is vivid and attractive, popping crisply from scene to scene. There are a couple of dodgy shots scattered through the film--a hazy close-up or two during Jake's first scene (possibly the result of optical printing generation loss), the obvious use of stock footage of a deer later on. But those are minor concerns; it's a good, clean transfer overall.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is adequate if underwhelming--dialogue is crystal clear, but there's not much action in the surround channels, aside from some subtle environmental effects and the disbursement of Elmer Bernstein's score. Gunfights and action scenes, disappointingly, stay mostly up front.
English 2.0 stereo and Spanish, Castilian, German, French, and Portuguese mono tracks are also available, in addition to English SDH, French, Castilian, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles.
As with the original DVD, not a one.
Big Jake isn't exactly classic Duke--it doesn't have the thoughtful subtext of The Searchers, the humor and emotion of True Grit, or the sheer bang-up entertainment value of Rio Bravo. Like his films that came just before (Rio Lobo) and after (The Cowboys), it's not trying to reinvent the wheel; it's just a good old-fashioned John Wayne picture, nothing more, nothing less. For many of us, that'll do just fine.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.