Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

BIG JAKE (1971)







John Wayne spent the 1960s and 70s defining and refining his brand. His look, stance, and character became set in stone. He often even wore the same costume from film to film. He become “John Wayne,” the iconic figure that would outlive the man, a personage so enduring that in 2009, according to the annual Harris Poll, he was still among the top ten “favorite movie stars,” thirty years after his death. His image was so established in the public consciousness that the smallest visual variations could be extraordinarily evocative (an eye patch in “True Grit,” a moustache and van dyke in “The Shootist”) or jarringly unconvincing (modern dress in “McQ” and “Brannigan”).






Wayne had been mentored throughout his career by powerful and influential director John Ford, who had pushed Wayne toward more nuanced and then darker roles, culminating the vengeful, driven Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and the drunken, bitter, heart-broken Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In the 1960s the duo would work together on one subsequent feature, “Donovan’s Reef,” but Wayne’s character in this lighthearted and frothy tale, another of my Dad’s favorites, has more in common with Wayne's later films than with his earlier work for Ford.

Wayne had created his own production company in the early 1950s. He had taken on directorial duties in 1960 with “The Alamo.” His transformation from John Wayne the actor to John Wayne the franchise begins with “Rio Bravo” in 1959. In this Howard Hawks directed venture, Wayne plays the role he will perfect and simplify through the next 17 years. He plays basically the same character in a series of westerns and non-westerns alike, including “McLintock,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “El Dorado,” “The War Wagon,” “Hellfighters,” “The Undefeated,” “Chisolm,” “Rio Lobo,” “The Train Robbers” and “Cahill, U.S. Marshall.” As he took more and more creative control of his movies, a pleasant predictability emerged. Casts include repeat appearances by members of the John Ford stock company, veteran Hollywood performers and second-generation Hollywood actors, including Wayne’s own sons. Rousing scores by Elmer Bernstein became Wayne’s recognizable soundtrack. And the movies recall elements if not entire scenes from Wayne’s earlier films.

As Wayne entered the 1970s he remained relevant by embracing his age and becoming the representation of a by-gone era, a living, breathing anachronism at the dawn of the 20th century in the American West. Lodged between two attempts by Wayne to stretch his acting muscles and break from his established persona, “True Grit” in 1969 and his final film “The Shootist” in 1976, are ten films, eight of them westerns.

The best of these, and my Dad’s favorite, is “Big Jake.”

In “Big Jake,” Wayne plays former land baron Jacob McCandles. Estranged from his family for ten years, he is drafted to deliver ransom for his grandson (played by real-life son Ethan), whom he has never met, kidnapped by a ruthless gang of outlaws. McCandles is accompanied on this quest by his resourceful and obedient dog, his two sons (one played by real-life son Patrick Wayne, the other by Robert Mitchum offspring Chris Mitchum), and an old Native American companion and ally (played by Bruce Cabot).

“Big Jake” is book-ended by two powerfully staged scenes of suspense and carefully choreographed violence. In the first, the outlaw gang slowly, calmly, but immutably approaches the McCandles ranch across a wide plain. It’s a good five minutes before they arrive at the ranch, and their approach is witnessed from the viewpoint of several characters, building considerable tension. In some ways, the scene is reminiscent of Omar Shariff’s introduction in “Lawrence of Arabia,” with a looming threat drawing closer almost in real time. The suspence is damaged by revealing the gang too early, and by occasionally cutting to closer shots of the gang as they approach, but the sequence still retains much power. It culminates in surprisingly graphic violence, unprecedented for a John Wayne film, when the gang brutally attacks the ranch and kidnaps the young boy. This established threat of unrestrained violence hangs heavily over the remainder of the film.

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In the final scene, McCandles and his companions face off against the gang, each individually pitched against an equal and opposite opponent.

It’s hard to know who to credit with what are some interesting and effective directorial choices in these scenes. The director of record is George Sherman, directing his last feature. Sherman had directed almost 50 “B” westerns between 1937 and 1942, eight of which starred Wayne early in his career. Most of these were “Three Mesquiteers” adventures pairing Wayne with Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune. Sherman went on to direct more than 65 more films, never breaking away from his low budget roots. He directed the second unit for Wayne in 1942’s “Flying Tigers,” and produced “The Comancheros" for Wayne in 1961. Wayne was exhibiting his well-known loyalty by handing the reigns of a major project to Sherman. Accounts vary as to who the film’s actual director was. Some say that Wayne took over directing duties from Sherman when he arrived on the set a few days into the shoot. Others credit Sherman with convincing Wayne to incorporate more realistic violence, which Wayne was on record detesting. If Don Siegel’s account of directing Wayne in his last feature, “The Shootist,” is to be believed, then I suspect that Wayne’s mood swings, sometimes demanding and defiant, sometimes conciliatory and diffident, determined who was directing on any given day.

Between the opening and climactic scenes, Wayne’s Jake McCandles proves more resourceful than the combined accoutrements of the modern age, including automobiles, motorcycles, scope rifles, and automatic pistols. There are scenes of unrepentant violence and inappropriate humor, performances both convincing and strained, a striking ambush of automobile driving Texas Rangers by the kidnap gang, and familiar bits of business lifted from earlier and frankly better Wayne films. Wayne evidences embarrassment at his need for eyeglasses as he does in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” He utters “that’ll be the day,” the catch phrase from “The Searchers.” There’s an overblown comic fight scene with a massive foe that harkens back to “The Quiet Man” and “McLintock,” and most nostalgic and emotionally resonant of all is the casting of Maureen O’Hara as McCandles’ estranged wife in the last of their five appearances together.

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In “Big Jake,” screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, who crearted Dirty Harry the same year, provide Wayne with one of the strongest antagonists of his career. John Fain, leader of the kidnappers, as played by Richard Boone, is McCandles’ equal in almost every way, and theirs is a conflict as much of strategy as brawn and skill. They are near doppelgangers - Fain the dark mirror image of McCandles. Even though they have only two scenes together in the film, the conflict between them is palpable throughout, and the screen sizzles with tension when they are together. Richard Boone finds just the right threatening tone to counter Wayne’s confident swagger. A talented and underused actor, Boone was best known as Paladin in the hit TV series “Have Gun Will Travel,” a series the Finks regularly scripted.

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I came of age as a movie-goer in the 1970s. My Dad and I shared enjoyment of these John Wayne films, and anticipated their release in the same way we looked forward to a new James Bond picture. For my Dad, I suspect that these simple morality tales with easily identifiable and larger-than-life heroes and villains harkened back to the “B” westerns, some starring John Wayne, that he grew up watching, but with added production value, more action and larger scale. For me, they were big budget renderings of the television westerns I grew up watching, and in this my Dad and I shared a common nostalgia. I also suspect that for my Dad these movies were comforting islands in a sea of cinematic change, more familiar and reassuring than the violent and morally ambivalent films from other younger filmmakers (although he often embraced surprisingly avant-garde films, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

There are also regrettable carry-overs from an earlier time that went unnoticed to the 15 year old viewer I was in 1971. John Ford often evidenced, for his era, a rather sophisticated or at least complex view of sexual politics and race relations. One need only compare “The Quiet Man” to “McLintock” is see that Wayne did not follow in his mentors footsteps in these areas. In 1971, the year “Big Jake” was released, Wayne expressed some horrifying and embarrassing thoughts on race relations in a controversial Playboy interview. In a year that saw “Shaft” become a mainstream hit, there are only two African-American characters in “Big Jake,” both servants. There is an outlandish and insensitive throw-away joke at the expense of two Chinese extras that manages to insult both Chinese and Native Americans. But more unfortunate is the casting of Bruce Cabot as McCandle’s loyal and obedient Native American companion, Sam Sharpnose. There is certainly a long tradition of Caucasian actors playing characters of color in Hollywood pictures, but by 1971 Chief Dan George had been nominated for his work in “Little Big Man.” Even Tonto, whose character in the Lone Ranger series foreshadows Sharpnose, was portrayed by Native American Jay Silverheels. Wayne’s motives in casting Cabot, who had played the romantic male lead in "King Kong" in 1933, are hard to criticize. He and Wayne had become close friends while working together on "Angel and the Badman" in 1947. Cabot became a regular in Wayne’s movies, appearing in twelve. In 1971 Cabot was ill and suffering from addiction. Being cast in “Big Jake” was a life line for the actor, who died the next year. And his performance in “Big Jake” is solid if unconvincing. But the character and the casting are a constant reminder of the slowly waning prejudices of another time. Most troubling is the cavalier attitude the white characters evidence toward Sharpnose's fate, not much different from their reaction to the fate of the dog, and expressed in a celebratory freeze-frame that leads into the closing credits.

Still, there is much to enjoy in “Big Jake." It is a streamlined and fast-paced quest, with elements both familiar and unique. And at the center is not just John Wayne, but “John Wayne,” and the film rests firmly on the foundation of his life-long career.

In many ways, Wayne was the embodiment of America, both its attributes and its failings – larger than life, independent, confident, heavy-handed, macho, paternalistic, violent, racist, sexist, clannish, brave, conservative and reactionary.

“Big Jake” exemplifies all of these.

Buy Big Jake at Amazon.com.

© 2010 Edward Bowen


© 2009 Edward Bowen

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