Big Jake (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Grandfather tracks grandson’s kidnappers.

In 1909 a group of outlaws led by John Fain (Richard Boone) raid the McCandles homestead and kidnap their grandson (Ethan Wayne). Martha (Maureen O’Hara) is the home’s matriarch who decides that the help of the army and Texas Rangers just won’t do and the family’s estranged grandfather, Big Jake McCandles (John Wayne) will. Big Jake, who was once a legendary gunfighter in his day has been roaming the west alone for many years, but once he gets word that his grandson has been kidnapped he snaps into action using the help of an old Apache associate named Sam (Bruce Cabot) to help track where the kidnappers are.

This another film where in Leonard Maltin’s review book he gives two different takes of the film depending on which version, older vs. newer, that you have. I realize Maltin does not review all of the movies that are in his book, but whoever reviewed this movie in the older versions gave it only 2-stars and describes it as an ‘uneasy combination of a traditional Wayne western and a Butch Cassidy-type spoof’. In the newer versions Maltin or whoever did the review now suddenly likes it and gives it 3-stars calling it ‘an underrated western that’s well paced and handsomely shot’. The only consistency between the two is that both consider Boone’s performance as being ‘especially good’.

For me the original review is far more accurate. Although the film does start out with a rather offbeat, Avant-garde opening everything that comes after is formulaic and mechanical. The plot is too basic and not all that exciting or gripping you never see or learn much about the boy who has been kidnapped and therefore one’s concern for his safety wanes. It starts out right away with the violent kidnapping without any backstory and then deviates into a lot of side-story adventures until you almost forget about the kidnapping plot completely only to finally come back to it with a so-so shootout finale. In a lot of ways the kidnapping theme could’ve been excised completely as the only time it gets amusing is during Wayne’s bantering with his co-stars as they ride around looking for the bad guys, so everything should’ve centered on that while possibly changing the plot around to them looking for gold or lost treasure instead.

Wayne’s presence is the biggest detriment as he has played this domineering, stubborn old codger for far too long and there needed to be a fresh new spin put on it, but none is supplied. I was hoping for one brief moment that the arrogant, brash Wayne character might be proven wrong at something, or forced to swallow his immense pride just to keep things balanced, but of course its only everyone else that has do that while the mystical Wayne proudly plods on like he can do no wrong.

I thought the introduction of the automobile into the plot, where some of the men decide to ride in those while Wayne stubbornly sticks with his horse, might offer this by having the old-fashioned character eventually forced to modify his thinking and embrace change and modernization. In reality everyone must eventually have to do this at some point in their lives, so The Duke should too, but instead here the reverse occurs, where those that adapt to change are made to look foolish while the hard-headed Wayne rides off unblemished, which to me made it too agonizingly predictable.

Having Wayne’s real-life son Patrick playing Big Jake’s feisty and rebellious son is fun, but I wanted their confrontations to be played up more. Christopher Mitchum is okay too as Big Jake’s other kid who rides a motorbike and this was the last movie that Mitchum did with Wayne because afterwards he quit speaking to him due to Wayne’s right-wing leaning politics, which I found ironic since 25 years later he ran for a California congressional seat as a conservative republican.

O’Hara is sadly wasted and seen only during the film’s first 15 minutes and then that’s it. Singer Bobby Vinton also appears at the beginning, but his acting is terrible and fortunately for the viewer his time on the screen is brief.

The only thing that I liked about the movie is the gorgeous view seen outside the ranch home in the opening scenes and I wished that the entire story had taken place in the home so we could keep enjoying its breathtaking surroundings, which was filmed on-location in the Mexican state of Durango. Otherwise everything else is a bore.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 26, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated G

Director: George Sherman

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

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