Big Jake (1971)

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The film has an opening gambit that nearly feels unbecoming of a John Wayne picture and yet there’s something simultaneously quite riveting about it. You can’t quite take your eyes off of it, waiting to see what will come to pass.

Our narrator sets the scene in 1909 where, while the East is rising in a constant deluge of modernization, the West is still as ornery as ever. What follows is a full display of that reality as a band of thugs led by John Fain (Richard Boone) rides into a sprawling ranch with one thing on their minds.

There’s a sense that this late-period work from veteran director George Sherman, his last film, in fact, is well aware of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) generation and it readily ups the violent content. Although it is a modern western in this sense, there are still blatant signs of not only antiquity but the deep-rooted hierarchy of the West along ethnic lines.

With his good buddy from the early days behind the camera, John Wayne has another personal vehicle on his hands. There’s no doubting the centrality of his presence on the plot even if his entrance is delayed. The stock company is rich and deep as per usual but there is a myriad of young guns too and Duke had a habit of making his work a family affair.

Bobby Vinton gets a near token cameo while little Ethan Wayne becomes crucial to keeping the plot chugging forward as the thugs run off with the boy expecting a ransom in return for his life. Duke’s other two grown sons are played by Patrick Wayne and Bob Mitchum’s boy Christopher. Though not quite family, Maureen O’Hara makes a lovely appearance as the strong-willed ranch matriarch who has long been estranged from her husband Jake McCandles. The scenes with her longtime costar end in a blink of an eye but with such a meaningful cinematic history together they leave the necessary impression.

Like most of these later works, similar to a McClintock! (1963), Big Jake is unequivocally a must-see for the John Wayne faithful — people who could watch him in just about anything will find time to be heartily entertained.

It’s somewhat of a menacing western drama but there’s still ample room for a cheeky and rip-roaring good time. Big Jake, though more violent than some of Duke’s predecessors nevertheless has his mark of approval all over it. There are falls in the mud. He gets plenty of time to smack his sons around and also receives his share of wallops as retribution. Pulling buckshot out of backsides and dousing them with whiskey is all in a day’s work. And Duke is as vociferous as ever.

That’s what will get people to stay. Because it’s one thing about John Wayne that is rather refreshing. Like him or not, you know full-well where he stands and how he’s going to play it. Larger-than-life and tough-as-nails but with unquestioned integrity. I’m drawn to that like many others because I come from a wishy-washy generation. But far more than that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he does, the Duke never seems to do something purely out of spite. Instead, he has some deep-seated convictions.

He plays Big Jake McCandles with his typical presence that knows few equals in terms of longevity or sheer durability. Wayne certainly understands how to command a room and while everyone else tries to upstage him no one has the gumption. Richard Boone is probably the only old-timer who has the wiles and the pedigree to try to steal his spotlight and he’s, of course, the ringleader of our villains.

Despite being a man who left his family long ago, McCandles returns on a moment’s notice to rescue his kidnapped grandson. He’s a no-good old coot but there is that aforementioned sense of moral integrity. He’s has a funny way of showing it but he cares about family.

The truth is, he sees out his objective with his typical dogged resilience laced with worldly wisdom and tenacity. The conflict spawns from one son who is rightfully bitter and another son who seems like he’s traded out the past for new-fangled gadgetry. In the end, it seems the tried-and-true methods prove most effective. Wayne is joined in the task at hand by his feisty canine named “Dog” and a veteran Apache tracker named Sam.

Elmer Bernstein’s scoring automatically evokes layers upon layers of added richness from any western scenery and he’s somehow able to perfect everything that is resplendent and majestic about this way of life. There’s a deep abiding understanding of what The West meant and what men stood for.

Their final destination comes in a bustling boom town with thugs milling about and everyone looking to get a hand in on the cash payload that the McCandles have hauled around in order to save their young kin.

We know it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head. Of course, Duke gives it a bit of a kick in the rear by instigating barroom brawls to rile up the masses as a quality distraction. The resulting payoffs are as expected and gut-bustingly uproarious. And of course, John Wayne gets the last laugh of all from inside the shower stall of a barbershop followed by a final showdown where every member of the McCandle clan gets their own chance at redemption.

There’s nothing cutting edge here but this is a story of the dwindling West and so when that’s what your story is about, I think it can be said that Big Jake succeeds in these modest regards. After all, it’s a self-selecting film because anyone who wants to see it will be satiated and anyone else probably won’t search it out anyway. John Wayne has that influence on people even today.

3.5/5 Stars

Hombre (1967)

hombre1“You don’t get tired, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get thirsty. Are you real?” – Jessie

“More or less” – John Russell 

How to function within Western culture. That’s what John Russell must figure out as a man who was raised by Apache and then is forced to enter the “white man’s world” to collect his deceased father’s possessions (a watch and a boarding house). He starts out complete with long locks and a bandanna but soon switches over to more traditional western wear in a way blending into society — while simultaneously beginning to look more like the Paul Newman we know.

But he’s far from the affable ne’er do well. In fact, he hardly even utters a word. He’s not agreeable and about as terse as they come. He’s not looking for any favors and he’s not looking to hand out any charity. He’s also not going to take the white man’s flack. But his decision to sell his boarding house for horses is not too popular with the home’s residents, including the fiery Jessie (Diane Cilento).

hombre2Ultimately, Russell boards the local stage with a few other individuals. The destination doesn’t seem to matter much, but the people do. Leading the coach is affable Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) and along with the two aforementioned, the other two misplaced tenants, young Billy Joe and his wife join the contingent. The coach is rounded out by Indian Agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), his well to do wife, and finally, the vulgar tough-guy Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone).

When Dr. Favor learns of Russell’s background he requests that the Indian sit up top and such a reaction embitters Russell. But there’s not much time to worry about the prejudice because Cicero’s cronies hold up the stage in an effort to swipe some ill-gotten gain from the esteemed doctor. The survivors are left to die and Russell heads off on his own with a few stragglers trying to catch up with him. He has no sympathy to offer, but they follow him because he is the most knowledgeable among them.

Of course, the film must reach a crescendo and it occurs with Russell dealing with Dr. Favor and then Boone. Both men are crooked in their own ways. Grimes is sadistic in nature, but Favor is also a despicable and sorry excuse for a human being. And yet Russell himself has his own streak of heartlessness. What it means is that each man must face justice and in some way, shape, or form pay for their deeds. Just as the men come in different incarnations, they are complemented by varying degrees of women from all across the gamut.

Director Martin Ritt’s Hombre really feels like a riff off of Stagecoach and feels somewhat reminiscent of Boetticher’s western The Tall T (also featuring a no good Richard Boone). But it’s no doubt a western for the 1960s, coloring the West with more liberal and revisionist tones. However, the film deals not only with prejudice but morality. For although John Russell has a gripe with the world and its hypocrisy since his people are getting pushed out by men who call themselves “Christian,” he’s not without fault. Jessie so rightly points out, that if the whole world didn’t lift a finger then the whole world would go to hell in a hand-basket. And in many ways this world does.

3.5/5 Stars