"Big Jake" is another very popular western film. Although Maureen's appearance was very brief, it was enough to set the structure of a story that is actually very similar to "McLintock." As "Jacob McCandles," John Wayne played a character much more dramatic than G. W. McLintock, but with a similar persona. He was rebellious, rugged and rowdy, but with very strong moral fiber.
The plot is established during the opening credits as the the wayward "bad men" approach the McCandles ranch and a short description of their ominous character is narrated. I don't think, however, the audience was quite prepared for the McCandles ranch massacre that ensued.
The very presence of the statuesque, strong, Maureen O'Hara lent an immediate purpose to the opening scene and fans knew that if she was there, John Wayne couldn't be far behind. As Martha McCandles, Maureen seemed even tougher than Katie McLintock. Lines like "I HAVE no husband" got us off to a tenuous start to this story. We know right up front that Martha is estranged from her husband. Even standing with Richard Boone's gun pointing directly at her, Martha stands ready to defend her family. However, he reconsiders (probably thinking she'll be instrumental in getting the ransom he is seeking) so she's allowed to live.
With her grandson kidnapped by these ruthless killers, Martha takes immedate charge to see to it that the little boy is returned. Local and federal law come forth to offer their assist, but Martha's lines at this point pretty well say it all... "I don't think this is a job for the rangers, Buck, or for the Army, Sir. It is going to be a very harsh and unpleasant kind of business, and will I think require an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of man to see to it."
We are introduced to the the infamous Jacob McCandles out on the range, as he performs an act of heroism, saving a sheep herder from hanging. He is the John Wayne we remember, and the note that is brought to him by a rider is, of course, from Martha, summoning him to come home. He arrives for a pleasant reunion in the train station with Martha, as she tells him about the horrific killings at their ranch, and the kidnapping of their grandson (whom until that moment he did not know existed). Martha has everything ready for Jacob's mission; a chest supposedly filled with ransom money, together with a pack muels and provisions for his journey. He is pleased that she has thought of everything. As he emerges from the privacy of the railroard station he is approached by his son, James, who is on horseback.
Unfortunately James, is not quite as pleasant as Martha. James is very snide to his "Daddy" and says, "It's been some time since I've seen you... 10 years I think." Jacob glances at his wife and then back at the very cocky James and says "Ten years and 4 months." After listening to a few more smart remarks from James, Jacob says, "Well son, if you haven't learned to respect your elders, then it's time you learned to respect your betters" after which he pulls James from the saddle and into the mud.
The entire mission of bringing back Jake's grandson is a learning experience for both of Jake McCandles sons, James and Michael. They not only learn how to survive when dealing with ruthless killers and kidnappers, but they have an opportunity to finally get to know their father. Michael, the younger son is much more open minded as to what might have happened to break up his parents, but James is more relucant to respond. When waiting to rendez vous with the kidnappers in a Mexican village, Jacob tosses his pocket watch to James. When he opens it to check the time, there is a picture of his mother. He realizes then how much his father does love and respect his mother.
They all learn they must depend on one another. Even Jacob has to depend on his sons by journey's end. After a lot of action from the fantastic Richard Boone and his cut-throat buddies, the bad guys loose, and the grandson is saved (thanks to the all the McCandles and Sam). Unfortunately, Sam, Jacob's faithful Indian friend is killed. However, there is no looking back. The "Let's go home" line is uttered by a slightly wounded Jacob, as he gathers up his family and heads out. It's easy for the audience to imagine that Martha is waiting there knowing that this "extremely harsh and unpleasant man..." will return to her with their entire family together - and to her welcome arms.
Copyright - original essay by June Beck© 2-20-00
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