Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s 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.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

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. Watch THIS scene for an example (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 DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Advertisements

The Green Berets (1968)

green_berets_postOne of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.

As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.

I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.

The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.

Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.

The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.

Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.

Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.

Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!

 The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****