Big Jake (1971): John Wayne’s Three-Generational Western, Starring Maureen O’Hara and Richard Boone

John Wayne’s Big Jake McCandles, the hero of Big Jake, was yet another respected citizen who, like George Washington McLintock in the movie McLintock), has a town named after him.
Big Jake
Big jake ver2.jpg

Theatrical release poster.

Wayne’s single-minded mission is to avenge a mass raid on his property and the kidnapping of his grandson, Little Jake. At first, his estranged wife asks the Texas Rangers to get the kidnappers, only to realize that Wayne is the only” man capable of doing the job.

Big Jake” is abundant with expressions of John Wayne’s personal value system. First, there is a contrast between old traditional and modern progressive values. John Wayne’s horse, for example, outlasts the motorbike of his son.

The narrative takes place in l909, making comparisons between life in the East and in the West; at the turn of the century, life in the West was wilder, more dangerous and more demanding.

The movie describes John Wayne as a man of the past, who people don’t recognize anymore–a reference to his declining popularity in the 1970s. At least four times during the picture, he is told, “I thought you was dead,” to which he typically replies, “Not hardly,” or “that will be the day;” the latter phrase taken from John Wayne’s role in John Ford’s classic, The Searchers.


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John Wayne has no intention of quitting, as Big Jake, or as John Wayne the real-life actor. The film is based on a three generational plot, enabling Wayne to pass down the tradition of the West to his sons and grandsons! For instance, he can’t stand his son calling him “daddy,” telling him firmly, “You can call me father, Jack, or son-of-a-bitch,” but advises him not to use the latter too frequently; the same idea appears in John Wayne’s The Cowboys.

Later, finding his son lying on the ground, looking dead, he punches him twice: once for “scaring the hell out of me” and taking ten years of his life, which he cannot afford–another reference to his old age–and the second, for risking the life of his grandson by acting foolishly. Big Jake” reflects John Wayne’s concern with age, depicting him as less self-assured than in the past. And at the end, after finding his grandson, he gives him a useful lesson in manhood. He hands him a gun, but advises to use it only when he has to. He also tells him never to show other people that he is scared–it is a sign of weakness. The film also abounds in references to Wayne’s previous work.

The search for the kidnapped grandson is similar, but not as powerful as The Searchers.” John Wayne is also less self-reliant, needing a dog for self-protection, similar to Hondo.” And pulling out his glasses to read the ransom note reminded many of a better scene in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” in which he used glasses to read the inscription on the watch he got from his subordinates.

John Wayne as Jacob McCandles
Richard Boone as John Fain
Maureen O’Hara as Martha McCandles
Patrick Wayne as James McCandles
Christopher Mitchum as Michael McCandles
Bruce Cabot as Sam Sharpnose
Bobby Vinton as Jeff McCandles
Glenn Corbett as O’Brien, aka Breed
John Doucette as Texas Ranger Capt. Buck Duggan
Jim Davis as Head of lynching party
John Agar as Bert Ryan
Harry Carey Jr. as Pop Dawson
Gregg Palmer as John Goodfellow
Jim Burk as Trooper
Dean Smith as James William “Kid” Duffy
Robert Warner as Will Fain
Jeff Wingfield as Billy Devries
Everett Creach as Walt Devries
Roy Jenson as Gunman at bathhouse in Escondero
Virginia Capers as Delilah
Hank Worden as Hank
Ethan Wayne as Little Jake McCandles
William Walker as Moses Brown
George Fenneman as Narrator
Tom Hennesy as Mr. Sweet
Chuck Roberson as Texas Ranger


Directed by George Sherman
Produced by Michael Wayne
Screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink

Narrated by George Fenneman
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Edited by Harry Gerstad

Production company: Batjac Productions

Distributed by Cinema Center Films through National General Pictures

Release date: May 26, 1971

Running time: 110 minutes
Box-office: $7.5 million (rentals)