The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Big Jake

From his starring screen debut in 1930's The Big Trail to his final film in 1976's The Shootist, John Wayne became one of Hollywood's most beloved stars. For me, he will always be one of my favorites. Some look to The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist as his best roles (and they are), but one of my favorites from the Duke is a change of pace western from 1971, Big Jake

It's 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O'Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply "Follow the map." Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn't know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

Without a doubt, this is the most graphically violent movie of Wayne's career. Others like The Alamo are violent, but nothing quite like this. For western fans alone, that feature makes this George Sherman-directed western worth watching. Sidenote: With Sherman sick and unable to be on-location during shooting, Wayne directed much of the movie. In a career that spanned five decades, this is certainly a departure for the Duke. It is trying to be more modern, using some heavy-duty blood squibs. Even when the violence isn't on-screen, it is beyond startling and even disturbing in some scenes. Somewhat oddly, there is still an oddly comic tune at times that feels out of place alongside the sometimes extreme violence.

Wouldn't you know it though? I grew up watching this film -- still have an old VHS recording off TBS along with the bare-bones DVD -- and will always remember it fondly. Beyond the on-screen violence, there is something different about this western that's hard to put my finger on. I think I like it because of its general eccentric nature; the violence mixed with the odd humor. 'Jake' was shot on location in Mexico in Durango and Zacatecas, giving it a real sense of authenticity. Many Wayne westerns -- The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated -- were shot in Mexico, and wouldn't you know it? Mexico looks like Mexico, giving a great backdrop to the story. The always reliable Elmer Bernstein turns in an eclectic score that covers a lot of ground, but in a good way. Listen to the main theme HERE, but that's just a taste of what Bernstein's score has to offer. Another case of the little things aiding the bigger cause.

What else though? I love the interaction between Wayne and his two sons he hasn't seen in years. Estranged from his family (for unknown reasons), he only comes back at his wife's request. Wayne's introduction is priceless, O'Hara's Martha saying she needs a man as unpleasant as the mission he'll undertake. Cut to Wayne squinting down the barrel of a rifle in an extreme close-up with Bernstein's score playing. Jake is believed to have been killed years before, forcing him to hear many people say "I thought you were dead." Nope, still kicking, traveling through Texas and Mexico with his fiercely loyal dog. Seeing his sons again provides some of the movie's genuinely funny moments and also some surprisingly effective dramatic moments. Neither Patrick Wayne or Mitchum are out of this world actors, but they hold their own, as does a scene-stealing Cabot as an aging Apache.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne's shadow, but not Boone. Their scenes together are beyond perfect, few though they may be. Watch THIS scene for proof (apologies for the low quality). Fain's gang includes O'Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John's brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake's third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John Doucette, John Agar, Jim Davis, Hank Worden, Chuck Roberson (Wayne's stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne's real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

Following the startling opening attack at the McCandles Ranch, things more or less settle down until the finale in the action department. After dealing with some pistoleros who want to get their hands on the $1 million ransom, Jacob and Co. head to the ruins of an old Spanish mission for the exchange. On a stormy night, the sequence that follows is a gem. It's brutal and vicious -- with at least two surprises -- but it always stays on a small-scale level where you know what's going on. The mission and plaza was supposedly used in the 1910s by revolutionary Pancho Villa for executions, adding a dark edge to the scenes. The gunplay isn't remembered as one of the all-time bests, but the finale is one of my favorites, partially due to the action, some to the script with its great one-liners.

Whatever the reasoning, I love this movie. I know it's not a great movie, but I love it just the same. John Wayne fans should appreciate this one, and western fans on the whole as well.

Big Jake <----trailer (1971): ****/****
Rewrite of review from July 2009