John Wayne's Last Good One
The John Wayne movies after True Grit were kind of a scraggly lot, but people still paid to see them. I remember going with my sister to the Rivoli in Myrtle Beach for Chisum the summer after Wayne got his Academy Award and the place was jammed to rafters. It impressed me at the time that so many would flock to look at a star who’d been around forty years and counting. Television stations were even back to running JW’s old Lone Star westerns from the early thirties as his name leaped again to Boxoffice Top Ten Lists. Wayne was virtually alone for being able to make home movies and call them major features. Most of these were under auspices of his Batjac company. All were done Duke’s way and nobody else’s. Costs stayed under four million as competing studio westerns bloated toward extravagance and loss. Wayne’s son Michael was efficient at producing and Dad didn’t have to worry about accounts being looted (as had been the case when outsiders oversaw previous coffers). The old man was by now well insulated by a team he could trust. So many had been with him from nearly the start. It was a policy great for comfort on location, but less promising as to merit of done product. Wayne got away with frankly weak films just for continuing to be John Wayne, not a small favor to millions who revered him. He promised in trailers that Hellfighters was the hottest picture I’ve made, and most were willing to forgive him the fact that it wasn’t. Understandable then how a man in Wayne’s position wanted to boss his sets, for as mentors like Ford, Hawks, and Hathaway faded fast going into the seventies, who was left he could look up to? I don’t care much for any of JW’s late vehicles save Big Jake. It remains for me the single oasis in a desert otherwise pretty arid. Am I alone for thinking this his best post-True Grit?
Big Jake skims the cream of what worked before for Wayne and much that would appeal to rougher trade stimulated by Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch. In fact, it was contributors to the former (Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink) that wrote Big Jake. Much of their original concept for Dirty Harry anticipated Wayne in that role, but he turned it down to eventual regret. There’s a good deal of Harry in Jake. Both are loners and somewhat outcast. This was a departure for patriarch Wayne, generally in command of whatever environment his characters occupied, be it Chisum-sized ranches or Civil War troops in Rio Lobo. As Big Jake, he’s back to wandering with Hondo’s nameless dog companion after having been exiled off McLintock’s Garden of Eden. Opening credits link us to The Wild Bunch for Jake’s New(er) West time frame (c. 1909) and how the country had changed around him. A surprisingly violent kidnap/massacre demonstrates Wayne’s having made peace with bloodletting now demanded even in family westerns. He despised ethos of The Wild Bunch, but would borrow further from it. For the first time in seeming ages, JW has an opponent worthy of him in Richard Boone. The latter plays kidnapper as though his Frank Usher from The Tall T had merely regrouped from that failed enterprise and was ready to try again with a larger gang. Wayne and Boone’s parrying is by far the most satisfactory either actor engaged during years too often matched with weak partners.
Wayne’s twilight westerns were charm bracelets studded with names (beyond family) he figured would bring luck. Big Jake’s director was George Sherman. Why the italics? I guess just incredulity that such a fossil would be handed reins of an expensive feature at an age nearly Wayne’s own and after so long an inactivity other than short schedules doing television. Sherman brought tradition for having guided Wayne in buckets of Three Mesquiteer westerns for Republic. I’m guessing he was supportive when the star drew smaller checks and this was payback. Directors were by 1971 accustomed to being directed by Wayne. All they needed to do was show up and don the hat, difference being JW’s held ten gallons and he wore it tall. Playing on his team required knowing at all times who the captain was. I’d be curious as to how much someone like Bruce Cabot received for coming down to Durango. And John Agar. And Harry Carey, Jr. ... these and so many others of Duke’s stock company. Wayne liked shooting westerns there because Mexicans he hired worked harder and cheaper than American crews. He was always cash poor, it seemed. Does his family still derive coin from sustained cable runs of Big Jake? I remember when the Atlanta Superstations built primetime schedules around John Wayne. That was twenty-thirty years ago. Before even that, a friend passed along a home address and I chanced a letter to the actor with mention of having collected posters and memorabilia on his films. The letter shown here was John Wayne’s reply. I did reach the phone number he included and spoke to secretary (and later revealed intimate) Pat Stacy. She said he’d gone out to the fish camp for lunch and would be sorry to have missed my call (gulp!). Per request, I sent out my collection such as it was. Not wanting to seem boorish, I didn’t ask him to autograph any of the items (still should be wearing a Kick Me sign for that). Their return included a nice Thank You note, also with bold signature (and I don’t think either were secretarial). For the record, Wayne did not make it to Salisbury for that April 1978 Sportscaster’s presentation.