Monday, September 10, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Big Jake" (1971)

This is the second of my first-ever Reeling Backward "double feature," looking at a pair of back-to-back Westerns John Wayne made during his declining years. You can read the column on "Rio Lobo" by clicking here. The two films have been paired together in a nice Blu-ray release that's now available.

Thematically and stylistically, "Rio Lobo" and "Big Jake" share a lot of space. Wayne plays essentially the same role: a cussedly good-natured cowboy who's on the downside of his long run in the saddle, still throwing his weight around to protect his reputation but also do some good if he can.

He plays Jake McCandles, the estranged patriarch of a wealthy ranching family along the Texas-Mexico border in 1909. It's never explained why he's out riding the lonesome range with his dog, whom he addresses simply as "Dog," rather than overseeing the ranch with his wife, Martha (Maureen O'Hara, still a stunner at 51), his three sons and the grandson he's never met.

Based on his antagonistic interactions with Martha and the boys, and the classic John Wayne archetype, it's a combination of ill feelings and Jake's inbred desire to roam free and clear.

Shot in vivid widescreen Technicolor by director George Sherman, "Big Jake" nonetheless very much has a television feel to it, as did "Lobo." There's a spare economy of storytelling and characterizations, as if all that exists of these people and this land is bookended within the film's 109 minutes.

In a good movie, we should always feel as if the characters have wandered in from other things they were doing and places they were going, which they'll return to after the credits roll.

(Assuming they survive, this being a rootin', tootin', shootin' Western.)

Like "Lobo," Wayne provided another send-off to a director making his last feature film. Obviously Sherman doesn't have the reputation or gallery of awards of Howard Hawks, but the journeyman directed or produced a number of notable films from the 1930s through the '70s, including several with Wayne like "The Commancheros."

I remain flabbergasted how "Rio Lobo" received a "G" rating from the nascent MPAA. "Big Jake" contains about the same amount of violence and blood -- still very orange-y -- but lacks the semi-nudity and sexual innuendo. Yet it received the harsher "GP" rating (later changed to PG).

The story of "Big Jake" is quite simple: a group of bandits led by John Fain (well-creased frequent villain Richard Boone) rides up to the McCandles ranch one day, shoots a bunch of people dead and kidnaps Martha's grandson, "Little Jake," played by Wayne's real-life son, Ethan. In the process Little Jake's son, played by singer Bobby Vinton, is badly shot up, though his two younger brothers remained safe, away with the herd.

Fain's Gang leaves a note demanding $1 million in ransom in $20 bills, with the bearer to proceed along a trail on a map provided until they are met. Martha must decide between sending the U.S. Army or Texas Rangers to carry the ransom, but also sends word to Big Jake, who ends up taking on the assignment personally.

How anyone knew where to find him is left a mystery -- another example of the poor internal logic often associated with TV writing. The script was by the Fink screenwriting couple, Harry Julian and Rita M., best known for the "Have Gun -- Will Travel" Western series and the "Dirty Harry" movies.

Much is made in the movie of the split between the Old West and the more civilized East, with a long narrated intro contrasting the high society developments in New York or whatnot with the life on the still-young frontier remaining very much under the boot heel of hard men with guns.

The Rangers travel by automobile these days, and there's a big Keystone Cops-style scene where Fain's Gang shoots the clankety machines to pieces, leaving the lawmen stranded. They hadn't even thought to bring enough water to drink. Jake catches up with his train of spare horses, allowing his other two sons, who had gone with the Rangers, to join up.

The elder McCandles son, hothead James, is played by another of Wayne's real-life offspring, Patrick. The younger, cooler Michael, who favors a motorcycle until it's smashed up, is again played by Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert), who also appeared in "Rio Lobo."

James is constantly antagonizing Jake, calling him "Daddy" when he wants to annoy him, and repeatedly blaming him for running out on the family. Michael is more polite and obedient, though he occasionally pisses off the man he calls "Father," too. Jake lays down several rounds of smack on the both of them.

Also tagging along is Sam Sharpnose, an old Apache tracker played by Bruce Cabot (who looks about as Native American as me). There's a nice scene where the two old gunmen privately share their newfound affinity for Greener shotguns, as they've grown mostly blind at distance.

Other nods to modernity are the weapons used in the film. Jake relies on his scattergun and six-shooter, but Michael favors a bolt-action rifle with a scope, and has to duel with an adversary using a similar weapon. Michael also produces a pistol he calls a "1911," an early semiautomatic that is shown firing at high (nearly uncontrollable) speed. He later hands this over to James, who uses it to take out several bandits.

(The 1911 reference is confusing, as the famous M1911 wasn't issued until that year.  The Internet Movie Firearm Database lists the weapon used in the movie as a Walther P-38 dressed up to look like a Bergmann 1896.)

Fain's Gang is a colorful mix of crusty characters. Interestingly, the villains are actually introduced at the very start of the film, with each man getting a little mini-bio from the narrator, while Wayne doesn't even show up till the 20-minute mark.

The two gang members who make the biggest impressions are Harry Carey Jr. as Pop Dawson, the wily old coot of the bunch, and John Goodfellow (Greg Palmer), a grizzly mountain of a man who favors finishing off his victims with a machete, slashing them repeatedly with an orgiastic fervor we'd later see in the forthcoming slasher film genre.

I feel much about "Big Jake" as I do about "'Rio Lobo." Neither deserves a high place in the John Wayne canon, though they're decent, fast-paced Westerns with a lot of entertainment value.

I was surprised again how much Wayne smiles throughout the movie, despite playing a character whose orneriness is supposed to be his defining trait. The old cowboy actor couldn't hide his joy at doing what he did best.

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