“Big Jake” premiered on May 26, 1971, John Wayne’s 64th birthday. It was already his third western of the decade, and Wayne was so comfortable in felt cowboy hats that he must have known the genre by rote.
By this point, a mass of filmgoers had accused Wayne of playing the same character over and over again. The actor was fully aware of this, and mentioned it during an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, reasoning that he played different characters in films such as “The Quiet Man” and “Yellow Ribbon.” He also challenged his critics with an interesting comment on the qualities of movie stardom. “Thousands of good actors can carry a scene,” Wayne said, “but a star has to carry the scene and still, without intruding, allow some of his character into it.”
This point is relevant to “Big Jake.” Everything about it is old hat, but through some combination of cadence, swagger, and legacy, John Wayne lifts a project that could have been thoroughly cut and paste. What is “Big Jake” about? Well, there’s a hostage, a ransom, and a gunslinging posse hired to collect it. There’s also a level of violence that is above that usually found in a John Wayne western, although still below that of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Perhaps the most unique element of “Big Jake” is the appearance of Wayne’s son, Patrick, who gives an angsty performance as Big Jake’s first born.