The year is 1909, and in the civilised world progress is continuing apace, but in parts of the United States in the South and West there were still outlaws roaming around, and in Texas a band of marauders were striking terror into the hearts of law abiding folks throughout the land. This was led by Jim Fain (Richard Boone), a killer without conscience, but the whole gang of nine were formidable foes, proving this when they arrived at the McCandles ranch one morning and began shooting up the place, a massacre which only ended when they kidnapped a young boy...
But they're messing with the wrong family, because that little chap is the grandson of none other than John Wayne. Well, actually he was Ethan Wayne, the son of the Duke, but for the purposes of this Big Jake was the grandfather of Little Jake. Being one of the late period movies of this star, he managed to get a bunch of friends and relations together to make this, so Patrick Wayne was hired to play James, Big Jake's disrespectful son, apparently so they could have a scrap with each other every so often to define the concept of "tough love".
But the whole production had a tougher mood than much of what had gone before for Wayne, thanks to a not exactly smooth attempt, too often referred to in the story, to move with the times, and those times in that post-Wild Bunch atmosphere were loosening the censorship of what could be depicted on the screen with regards to violence. That opening massacre was bloodier than much else in the Wayne canon, for example, and the climactic shootout did its best to top it, with seemingly almost every member of the cast suffering a bullet wound before the credits rolled. Not to mention the huge bloke with the machete stalking about.
Actually our hero did not appear until about twenty minutes in, once we had the bloodbath and setting up of the kidnap plot out of the way, but now he had his fans knew they were in safe hands. The tone veered from square-jawed men's men knocking lumps out of each other to the kind of knockabout humour that was no less aggressive for being played with a supposedly lighter touch, not that you would have noticed. Once Fain's gang have taken off with the boy, they leave a ransom note behind asking for the Doctor Evil-reminscent one million dollars, which in 1909 must have been an astronomical amount of cash.
And probably impossible to raise at such short notice, which explains a late on twist. Mainly, though, Big Jake and his own team, who are pared down by the baddies' gunfire to pretty much him, his sons (including Christopher Mitchum, son of another screen icon) and Indian scout Bruce Cabot; they set off in hot pursuit to track down Fain, which turns out not to be too difficult as Fain is tracking them as well. In spite of those bursts of action, this was a laid back film as if Wayne had asked the audience round for a relaxing night of drinks and tall stories, which tended to go against the tension. In that suspense's favour, when yet another cast member falls by the wayside you're not sure who will survive to the end, but when you reach that you find you could have guessed anyway. Boone was a solid enough bad guy, but when Big Jake's wolf-like dog was stealing scenes from everyone this was not that distinguished apart from the violence. Music by Elmer Bernstein, recycling The Magnificent Seven.