Thursday, September 2, 2010
Big Jake (1971) A Movie A Day Day 93
This is a Key Dialogue scene, not the trailer. Beware of Spoilers.
I was sure I saw Big Jake when I was a kid. I know Duke had Richard Boone is some of his other movies, but I thought it was this one I remembered him from. As I was watching however, I did not remember any of the scenes that I saw or plot elements. It was near the last part of the movie that I figured out what happened. We came in late to Big Jake, and saw only the climax of the picture. Believe it or not, it was playing with "Easy Rider". We sat through "Easy Rider" but it was late so we did not stay for the late screening of Big Jake to catch up on the opening. I think I saw this with either Don Hayes or Pat Simpson, and I have an image of my brother Chris getting us into the movie. I do know that we saw it at the Monterey Theater, which was on the border of Alhambra and Monterey Park, located on Garfield Ave just south of Hellman. It was referred to as the make out theater because the seats in the back were on a strong incline, almost like stadium seating today. That gave the movie house the impression of a balcony even though it did not have one. I never took a girl to the movies there so I don't know if it lived up to it's nickname. By the time Dolores and I were married and living just a few blocks north of the theater, it had changed hands and showed primarily Asian films.
There is quite a bit of broad humor in Big Jake, but it never reaches the level of a movie like "McClintock". In fact from the beginning there is a pretty serious tone. A narrator introduces us to the nine men that the film opens with riding across a meadow. They are a band of cutthroats that no one would want to meet. We get a cross cut scene of a ranch, where daily events are unfolding in a lazy and somewhat warmhearted manner. We know immediately that these two sets of people are going to cross paths and the result will not be pretty. Sure enough a pretty violent assault takes place, there is a lot of blood for a John Wayne Western. In the old days a cowboy got shot and fell down, this movie came out a couple of years after "The Wild Bunch" and you can clearly see the influence. Squibs burst and guys hit with big guns fly backwards, they dont just fall down.
The time is established as 1909, so there are things in this movie that would be anachronistic in most westerns. If you look at other westerns on this list, you will see that some are set after the turn of the century. The past fading in the face of the future was a big theme in movies at this time. In this movie, it is hinted at but the cars, automatic handguns and motorcycles, are basically just used to make the action a little bit different. They have almost nothing to do with the story. After killing nearly a dozen people on the ranch, the bad guys kidnap the little boy we had watched taking a piano lesson. His grandmother played by Maureen O'Hara, sends for her absent husband. We are never sure what came between them, but it turns out this is not a reconciliation story, it is a straight action picture. After Wayne gets on the trail, we never see O'Hara again and she is only referenced briefly later in the movie. Wayne is accompanied on his task to deliver the ransom money by his two estranged grown sons. There are some scenes where the familial bonds need to be restored but they are not lingered over. John Wayne's own son played one of the grown boys, the other is played by the son of Robert Mitchum.
Most of the action is pretty standard. The tension in that opening set up is never matched again during the story. The actors seem to be rushing some of their lines and the performances are not as naturalistic as one would expect in a John Wayne movie. They bad guys are nasty people but they are not stupid and they have a good strategy for trying to make the switch of the boy for the money. This leads to the scene that you will find above. Of course Big Jake and his sons are more than a match for most of the crooks, but the character played by Boone, is a particularly nasty piece of work. This movie was written by the same guys who wrote "Dirty Harry" and you can see that they wrote psychopaths pretty well.
About half of the John Wayne movies he made in the seventies are excellent, the others are merely serviceable. This one fall into that later category. It is not a great Wayne performance, and the story does not have any depth to it. There are some good set pieces, but there are other scenes that don't seem to go anywhere. I can't write off a John Wayne western just because it has automobiles in it, after all, I love "The Shootist". I do think that horses should always be the mode of transportation for cowboys. This one is entertaining enough but not truly special. I'm getting close to wrapping up for the summer, so it is nice to have one more from the Duke, I just wish it had been a little stronger.