I have a vague memory of seeing BIG JAKE (1971) in the theater when it was first released. Hell, starting with THE ALAMO (1960), I saw almost every movie John Wayne made up until his death in 1979. I watched it again this afternoon (thanks to a recent airing on TCM, which I recorded). It's an utterly routine western but who cares when you've got the lovely Maureen O'Hara (with little screen time, alas), Richard Boone as the bad guy and the Duke himself riding tall in the saddle.
The year is 1909. John Fain (Boone) and his men attack the McCandles ranch at the beginning of the film. They kill many and take Little Jake, the young McCandles boy, hostage. They demand a million dollars in ransom to be delivered to them in Mexico. McCandles matriarch Martha (O'Hara), realizes that "a harsh and unpleasant kind of business will require an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of person to see it through." She sends for her estranged husband, Big Jake McCandles (Wayne), a man who has been gone from his family for so long that most people think he's dead. Oh, and he doesn't know that he has a grandson, the kidnapped Little Jake.
Jake sets out to deliver the money along with his two sons James (real-life son Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum), his faithful Indian companion Sam Sharpnose (Bruce (KING KONG) Cabot!) and his dog, Dog. They have some troubles along the way before the final deadly gun battle in which Little Jake is rescued, the bad guys dispatched and the McCandles men head for home. Remember kids, in a western, when the main villain is dead, the movie is over.
BIG JAKE was the last of five films that John Wayne made with Maureen O'Hara. The others are RIO GRANDE (1950), THE QUIET MAN (1952), THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957) and McLINTOCK! (1963).
Directed by George Sherman, with a screenplay by Harry Julian and Rita M. Fink (who also wrote DIRTY HARRY), BIG JAKE is a solid piece of genre work. The cinematography by William H. Clothier is nice (the film was shot in Durango, Mexico) and Elmer Bernstein's score is well done. Director Sherman was an old friend of Wayne's and he was 63 years old at the time the film was made. While in Mexico, Sherman's health prevented him from going to some of the more remote locations so Wayne filled in behind the camera.
There are no surprises here. It's a typical John Wayne western which looks old fashioned compared to the groundbreaking films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969). But at this stage in his career, with a Best Actor Oscar on his shelf, Wayne had nothing to prove and he wasn't about to upset the apple cart that made him an icon. You want a routine John Wayne western? BIG JAKE fills the bill nicely.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.