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Big Jake

John Wayne is Jacob "Big Jake" McCandles, and, boy, does he have a hell of a problem on his hands. Without even taking into account the kidnapping of his grandson by a pack of vicious rustlers led by no less than TV's "Paladin," Richard Boone, Big Jake has to deal with a pair of recalcitrant sons who refuse to show him proper deference. Just how rebellious are these kids? Take for instance James (played by Wayne's real-life son, Patrick), who repeatedly refers to his father contemptuously as "daddy." There's also Michael (Christopher Mitchum), the (gasp!) motorcycle-riding whippersnapper averse to shooting down complete strangers without first confirming whether or not they're actually a threat. Even worse, neither one of these brats wears a watch! Kids these days! What's a father to do? Well, if you're John Wayne the answers pretty simple: you beat the crap out of them. Released in 1971, Big Jake was yet another in a series of Wayne films in which the larger-than-life symbol for American manhood raged against the youth counterculture that had taken root in the wake of the Vietnam War. Wayne sought to address this skepticism in 1968 with The Green Berets, a botched attempt to graft World War II heroics onto a far more complex conflict that, for possibly the first time in his career, left the man looking like a fossil. Perhaps smarting from this failure (partially salved, no doubt, by his Lifetime Achievement Award masquerading as a Best Actor Oscar in 1970 for his vigorous performance in True Grit), Wayne struck back with Big Jake, in which he plays the aging, itinerant rancher of the title with an unmistakable hint of simmering rage. The film itself is a routine abduction-and-rescue oater in roughly the same vein as John Ford's classic The Searchers; this time, however, it's set at the turn-of-the-century, where progress, in the form of motorized vehicles and automatic pistols, is threatening to bring civilization to the untamed frontier. Directed by B-movie hack George Sherman, the picture is tonally stuck between Wayne's dogged conservatism and the acknowledgment of the new, rougher Western aesthetic practiced by Peckinpah and Leone. The opening assault on the McCandles ranch was probably the bloodiest sequence of Wayne's career to that point. Women and children are shot, and, in one instance, a pretty young Mexican girl is hacked to pieces (which happens mostly off-screen). Meanwhile, the young Jacob pokes a villain in the face with a pitchfork. But the action, while competently staged, must've seemed a quaint half-measure in the wake of The Wild Bunch and other violent entertainments of the day, not to mention the ongoing war brought home on the nightly news. This brutality also jarringly contrasted with the stilted, serial-level dialogue forced into the mouth of poor Maureen O'Hara, who was making her fifth and final appearance with Wayne. Characteristically tough talking and brave — you get the feeling she'd go down shooting at the beginning would it not jeopardize the life of her grandson — O'Hara is let down by the worst bits of writing in Harry & R.M. Fink's otherwise average screenplay. Her few brief scenes with Wayne at the beginning are a poor send-off indeed for this legendary screen couple. However, once Big Jake settles into its familiar search-and-rescue rhythm, it becomes a perfectly acceptable genre entry that's oddly strengthened by Wayne's conviction in such outmoded ideals (namely, "honor thy father, or he'll split thy lip"). Of course, it's a hoot to watch Bruce Cabot playing a Native American tracker, while both Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum are pretty lousy actors. But the Duke, even in such a wincingly infirm state, is ever his rugged self. He might be going through the motions, but no screen actor ever did so with such èlan. Paramount presents Big Jake on DVD in a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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