In anticipation of Volume 27 of The John Wayne Official Collector’s Edition, Duke’s Most Iconic Movie Moments, we’re exploring the archives to reveal the bigger picture behind some of the actor’s most iconic movie scenes. The shotgun shower scene from Big Jake clocks in at number 50 in our rankings, and the entire film is worth a re-watch. Read more about this late-era Wayne Western below and find out where the rest of his scenes stand in Vol. 27, out January 29!
Featured in the Official John Wayne Collector's Edition, Volume 1
By the 1970s, the Western had morphed from a collection of stories with good guys standing down black-hatted villains, into films trying to capture the complex morality and changing social norms of the time. Clint Eastwood’s backstabbing opportunist in “The Man With No Name” trilogy redefined what it meant to be a Western hero, and Sergio Leone’s 1986 epic Once Upon a Time in the West saw perennial do-gooder Henry Fonda playing a child murderer. Standing out from these fresh (but gritty) movies is Wayne’s 1971 collaboration with director George Sherman: Big Jake. The movie accomplishes the rare feat of paying homage to cinema’s rich history without feeling hokey or stilted. Part of that can be attributed to the natural chemistry Wayne shared with Sherman (who had worked with Duke on nine previous films) and his co-stars, who included his sons Patrick and Ethan as well as longtime screen partner Maureen O’Hara. With another member of the Wayne family, eldest son Michael, producing, Big Jake constituted a personal and professional reunion for Duke as he entered the twilight of his career.
The movie tells the store of “Big” Jake McCandles, an aged landowner and businessman estranged from his family. When a group of bandits kidnaps his grandson “Little” Jake (played by Wayne’s youngest son Ethan) and demands a ransom of $1 million, McCandles and his two grown sons (Patrick Wayne and Chris Mitchum) set aside their personal grievances and team up to rescue the boy. Although Duke was well into his golden years during the filming of Big Jake, Wayne carries himself on screen with the same confidence and swagger he exhibited throughout his career. “I admired Duke for playing a character his own age,” Sherman is quoted as saying in Michael Munn’s book John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. Sherman’s health problems, however, necessitated that Wayne take the director’s chair more than once to ensure the film was completed. Although Wayne directed a fair bit of the final cut, he insisted his hold friend Sherman get a solo director’s credit.
Big Jake proudly wears its traditional Western trappings, but it also makes a few concessions to the new wave of cinematic conventions that rose in popularity during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The plot takes place in the first decade of the 20th century, and the film features a chase sequence involving Model-T-era automobiles. It’s a subtle nod to the necessity and inevitability of change, a concept the old Western stalwarts such as Wayne, George Sherman and others wisely acknowledged. The movie also features more violence than most of Duke’s movies, with on-screen shootouts punctuated by explosions of blood squibs. “Duke disagreed with me on this, but I said we had to make the violence more realistic because audiences had come to expect it,” Sherman said. “He reluctantly agreed.”
Violence aside, the importance of family values lies at the heart of Big Jake and makes it one of the most touching entries in Duke’s œvre. By the end of the film, Jake McCandles delivers his grandson from danger and the family is once again made whole. In a way, the shoot itself echoed the film’s theme. One more ride with the people Duke loved most. “Maureen O’Hara was there, Bruce Cabot was there, all the stunt guys I knew were there,” Ethan Wayne said to Box Office Mojo. “It was a really fun place for me to be at 8 years old.”