"Big Jake" is one of my favorite John Wayne movies, which is not to claim that it is a classic film. This film is directed by George Sherman, who first began doing Westerns back in the late 1930s, although Wayne is known to have directed some scenes as well. In retrospect I would argue that this 1971 film is the first of a trio of film that Wayne made at the end of his career reflecting the passing of the Western. The other two would be Wayne's next film, "The Cowboys," and obviously his final film, "The Shootist." Of that trio "Big Jake" is clearly the most fun and my biggest complaint about this film is that when it is shown on television they almost always have the first commercial break at the absolute worst moment.
The film begins with a raid on the McCandles Ranch where Little Jake McCandles (Ethan Wayne, the Duke's youngest son, named for the character he played in "The Searchers") is kidnapped by a gang of cutthroats led by John Fain (Richard Boone). Fain demands a ransom to be delivered across the border in Mexico. The Texas Rangers are willing to do it, but Martha McCandles (Maureen O'Hara), the boy's grandmother, announces that this is a disagreeable task and needs to be done by a disagreeable man. At this point the came cuts to a close up of John Wayne peering down the barrel of a rifle. It is a great introduction to Wayne's character in the film and a fitting counterpart to the moment in "Stagecoach" when we first see the Ringo Kid and his Winchester. But television stations keep putting commercials before the cut because the film's opening sequence, in which narrator George Fenneman, who went from being Groucho Marx's announcer and straight man on "You Bet Your Life" ended up doing the narration for Jack Webb's "Dragnet," introduces us to all of the members of the Fain gang runs on a bit before we have the raid and the decision of what to do next. So Act I runs out for a bit and if there is a good reason to have this movie on DVD or VHS it is because that way you miss this horrendous commercial placement.
"Big Jake" is basically a chase story as the title character goes after his grandson, heading out with the ransom with only his trusted Native American friend Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot) and a dog named "Dog." But there are several others things going on to make the proceedings more interesting. Big Jake did not even know that he had a grandson, and while the boy's father Jeff (Bobby Vinton, the singer) is wounded, his two brothers James (Patrick Wayne, another of the Duke's son) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum who co-starred with the Duke in "El Dorado"). Clearly Big Jake has been separated from his family for a while and there are issues, particularly with James, who makes the mistake of calling his father "Daddy."
There is also a whole sub-text about relying on modern technology. While Big Jake heads off with horses the Texas Rangers take off in new fangled motorcars. Of course this is a mistake, but there is a recurring theme of the old ways being best. Michael has a motorcycle and James has a new fangled pistol, but they are able to overcome their reliance on modern technology. If the Old West is disappearing it is not disappearing until the Duke has his last fight.
Then there is the running gag that everybody seems to think Big Jake is dead. When we are treated to that great close up our hero is watching a group of cattlemen get ready to string up a sheep farmer. Big Jake does not want to get involved, not wanting to make a mistake of his youth that almost cost him his life. But then the leader of the lynch mob (Jim Davis) makes the mistake of kicking a boy ("Aw," says Big Jake, "why'd he want to go and do that for?"). There could be trouble but then it is discovered that the big man on the horse is Jacob McCandles, who apparently is not dead. This happens so often that Big Jake swears he will kill the next man who says that and, of course, he does.
Finally, this film has some great dialogue by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink. This was their first film together (he did "Major Dundee" and "Ice Station Zebra") and after this they created "Dirty Harry" for Clint Eastwood (no wonder the choice lines in this movie are so choice). When James calls Big Jake "Daddy," the Duke knocks his son on his can and announces: "You can call Dad, you can call me Father, you can call me Jacob and you can call me Jake. You can call me a dirty old son-of-a-b***h, but if you EVER call me Daddy again, I'll finish this fight." But my favorite is when Fain first encounters Big Jake (not knowing who he is, of course) and gives a very serious warning. At the climax of the film Big Jake repeats the warning word for word with a grim earnestness that is quite impressive. That is why this is not a great film, but a great movie.