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): ****/****

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Hombre (1967)

hombre_28film29Ask most western fans what their favorite Paul Newman western is, and I’d say 9 times out of 10, you’d get “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” back. I’d say it. It’s a classic and deserves its status. Let’s not forget about 1967’s Hombre though, an underrated gem featuring one of Newman’s all-time best performances.

It’s the late 1800’s in the Arizona territory. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was kidnapped at a young age by Apaches and raised as one of their own. Now a grown man, he associates more with the Apaches than white people. His adopted father though has passed away, leaving him a boarding house to decide what to do with. Russell sells it for a string of horses and takes a stagecoach to finish the deal. On-board, he finds his presence is less than welcome by his fellow passengers. The irony? One of the passengers intends to rob the others on the trail, and John’s skillset as a capable fighter and more than capable frontiersman will be more necessary than ever.

Point of conversation: This is a difficult movie to write a plot synopsis for. I don’t want to give too much away because in a somewhat messaged-based story, there are some good twists and turns along the way. It has some touches of Stagecoach, but in a more brutal, honest way. Hey, it was 1967 as opposed to 1939. Times had a’ changed!

From director Martin Ritt, ‘Hombre’ is one of the first — and best — revisionist westerns that began to look at the American west in a more honest fashion. They weren’t as white-washed as some 1950’s efforts and weren’t as flashy or exaggerated as spaghetti westerns. ‘Hombre’ takes the side of the Apache tribe who by the late 1800s was mostly in poorly-run reservations. We hear more about their plight, especially in quick, understated dialogue, and through one of several twists revealed about halfway through the movie. The bad guys then? Well, technically, everyone. Let’s cut to the chase though. The white folks don’t come off smelling like roses. It’s a fascinating story because it is so different from so many other genre entries.

Now for that Paul Newman fella. Playing John Russell, Newman steals this scene, seemingly without breaking a sweat. His dialogue is minimal, and when he does speak, he gets his message across in short, direct lines. His physical mannerisms are striking, his movements similarly minimalist. It’s just a fascinating character. Russell has chosen basically to live as an Apache warrior, leaving his white roots behind. He feels more at home with the Apaches and their way of life. In his fellow white passengers, he sees prejudice, racism, brutality, and maybe in most aggravating fashion, assumptions based on nothing but rumors. It’s only too perfect that these individuals come to depend on Russell for their very survival.

‘Hombre’ is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, but the biggest? Even with Newman’s Russell, there isn’t really a single sympathetic character in sight. You come to appreciate Russell’s personality and general intention, but sympathetic? Nope. As for the other passengers, look for Jessie (Diane Cilento), an out of work boarding house owner, Fredric March as Favor, the Indian agent, Barbara Rush as his wife, Richard Boone as the surly Cicero Grimes, Martin Balsam as Mendez, the stagecoach driver, and Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye as young married couple working through some issues. Cilento is especially good, the conscious of the movie and a conversational counter to Russell as their situation gets ever more dangerous.

Who else to look for? Keep an eye out for western regulars Frank Silvera, Cameron Mitchell, Val Avery and a pre-All My Children David Canary. Silvera is also a scene-stealer as an unnamed Mexican bandit. His scenes with Newman crackle.

Clocking in at 111 minutes, ‘Hombre’ isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. It is more of a slow burn full of tension, betrayal and some surprises along the way. Composer David Rose’s score isn’t big and booming, mostly relying instead on one memorable, quiet theme. Filmed on location in Arizona, it is a stunner of a flick. The desert and its barren qualities end up being a key additional character.

It all builds to one of the more startling endings I’ve seen in a western. Sticking with its realistic, downbeat tone, the finale features one of the more realistic shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. Newman owns the last scenes, spewing one-liners with a bite. The movie is full of quick, snappy and biting dialogue, and what would you expect from a screenplay based off an Elmore Leonard novel? I guess I forgot to mention that earlier! Any-hoo, so much to recommend here. I liked this western more on my recent viewing than I ever have before. A must-see for western fans.

Hombre (1967): *** 1/2 /****