Wednesday, January 18, 2012

DVD Review: Big Jake (1971)

Big Jake (1971)

(Released: 2005 by CBS Paramount Home Entertainment)

Another (not so) looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Who are you?”

Jacob McCandles!”

I thought you was DEAD!”

Not hardly!”

It’s 1909, and the big wave of change in civilization that has swept over Europe and the eastern United States has just begun to trickle toward the west. Indeed, the opening title and credits sequence of “Big Jake” plays over an introduction, narrated by George Fenniman, illustrating exactly that with period photographs.

Then, it dissolves into a procession of the vilest western badmen you ever saw (and the reason this one earned its PG-13 Rating), led by John Fain (Richard Boone).

Fain’s gang of cutthroats invades the vast McCandles ranch – presided over by Martha McCandles (Maureen O’Hara) and her three adult sons Jeff, James, and Michael (Bobby Vinton, Patrick Wayne, and Christopher Mitchum) – kill many of the hands and servants, critically wound Jeff, and abduct Jeff’s young son Jacob for a million dollar ransom.

Martha sends word to her estranged husband “Big Jake” McCandles (John Wayne), found wandering the vast countryside with his dog named “Dog”, and acting just as you’d imagine an “older John Wayne” to act, to return home and bring the boy back alive.

Of course, there are family tensions. “Big Jake” never even KNEW of “Little Jake”. Older son James is contemptuous of and disrespectful toward the “Daddy” who left, and motorbike-riding (!) younger son Michael has to earn “Big Jake’s” respect. And there is a posse of Texas Rangers riding around in 1909-era automobiles (…motorbikes and automobiles both indicative of the changes illustrated at the film’s opening) who are gung-ho to get the Fain Gang.

“Big Jake” decides to strike out on his own after the bad guys (…and wouldn’t we be disappointed if he didn’t) heavily armed and accompanied by his trusty Indian tracker associate “Sam Sharpnose” (Bruce Cabot) and faithful “Dog”, as James, Michael, and the Rangers move out to the tune of their more modern approach.

Needless to say, the second group fails, with James and Michael (with motorbike hopelessly wrecked) eventually joining “Big Jake”, Sam, and “Dog” in their relentless pursuit of Fain across the Mexican border. …Um, look out, Fain!

I have a soft spot for the later western films of John Wayne, having seen a number of them theatrically as a teen: “Chisum” (1970), “Big Jake” (1971), “The Cowboys” (1972) my personal favorite and a DVD we will review someday, “The Train Robbers” (1973), and “Rooster Cogburn” (1975).

The older, more crusty and ornery John Wayne just seemed to make for better films, as the Western genre reached what would be a twilight period.

I particularly liked the odd sight of “carpooling Texas Rangers” and the young, free-spirited Michael careening around the desert sand and rocks on his motorbike, in direct contrast to the most traditionally iconic western image there is – that of John Wayne!

Other Items of Note:

This film was a true family affair!

Both Patrick Wayne (as son James) and Ethan Wayne (as grandson “Little Jake” – yes John Wayne’s youngest son played his GRANDSON!) were featured – and the film was produced by Wayne’s son Michael for Wayne’s production company, Batjac Productions.

Christopher Mitchum (son Michael the motorbike rider) is the son of actor Robert Mitchum – star of many films, including THIS ONE.

Familiar John Wayne costars Maureen O’Hara, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr., and John Agar further add to the sense of “family”.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


An Absolute Lack of Extra Features: In the past, we’ve been charitable to early DVD movie releases that were severely lacking in Extra Features. Though we do call them out on it! (See THIS REVIEW of “The Thing from Another World”) And all the more so if the release were from a major studio (See THIS REVIEW of “He Walked by Night”)

But, in my humble opinion, this unimaginably barebones release of “Big Jake” may outdo them all!

My standard for a movie DVD’s Extra Features is the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. Thus far, “He Walked by Night” has been the only one to “whiff” on ALL THREE. And, even there, I’ll concede the release year of 2003, and that it was a black and white film starring Richard Basehart. Here, we’re talking a 2005 release of a more “contemporary” film starring Hollywood legend John Wayne! Even the lowliest of “fifties sci-fi quickies” offer more than this!

Like “He Walked by Night”, this release of “Big Jake” does not include as much as a TRAILER! Even Warner Archives springs for THAT! This is a MAJOR CON, and this great film deserves better! It might as well have been an old VHS tape, for all it offers!

If only “Big Jake” McCandles and his posse could trek out to Hollywood and kick the sorry butts of the CBS Paramount execs responsible for this release!


The Film: It’s John Wayne vs. Richard Boone, with all the violence that the more recently–liberated 1971 Hollywood could serve up! And the contrast between crusty, determined, and “truly gritty(pardon) John Wayne and the new-fangled devices that surround and confound him is a delight to behold.

Not much else beyond a great film and a great cast! But, blame that on the DVD’s producers.


Big Jake” is 01:49:34 of “John Wayne greatness”! And, in a personal-plus for me, it is the older and more contemporary John Wayne, who had come a VERY long way from westerns like THESE!

It revives in me memories of a time when “The Movies” was still an exciting place to go – and not reflective of “the same sorta stuff you see on television” – as it became shortly thereafter, and pretty much has remained to this day.

The lack of Extra Features for this set is, frankly, APPALING! Indeed, can it even BE called a “set”, if nothing is offered beyond the movie itself? ANY John Wayne product deserves better than this! Not even a trailer?! Glad The Duke wasn’t around to see this.

That notwithstanding, “Big Jake” is recommended for fans of John Wayne, the Western genre – particularly the Western Genre of the late-sixties and seventies period where the overall focus began to change and reflect the genre as unjustly outdated, and that period of Hollywood film productions in general.


Chris Barat said...


I vividly remember seeing CHISUM at summer camp in 1975. I can still quickly recall the theme song to mind. I never saw BIG JAKE. Still, I admit to being appalled, as you were, by the cavalierly barest-of-bare-bones treatment of this DVD release. (As sad as it sounds, it's just as bad as your typical DISNEY AFTERNOON DVD release!)


Joe Torcivia said...


Yes, the CHISUM song, once heard will pleasantly echo within for years, even decades, hence. Why, just your mention of it sets it to playing in the old head!

“Chisum! Jo-ohn Chisum! Weary! Saddle worn…”

And William Conrad lays some “spoken word” on us…

Great paintings over the theme, too!

But, back to BIG JAKE… 2005 release? John Wayne?! C’mon, folks… not even a trailer! What WERE you thinking!


Pete Fernbaugh said...

Hey Joe,

I, too, have an affection for the later John Wayne films. There's something vastly appealing about that crusty old guy kicking ass, but then again, I tend to prefer actors in their twilight...


Joe Torcivia said...


“…that crusty old guy kicking ass” may be the best way I’ve EVER seen it put!

That’s great!