Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Big Jake

Big Jake posterBig Jake (1971) stars John Wayne as Jacob McCandles, a rough-and-ready cowboy who heads down to Mexico to retrieve his kidnapped grandson from the villainous John Fain. The film opens with an odd photographic sequence comparing the East coast versus the West coast at the turn of the century; while life in the East is comfortable and civilized, it is still wild and rugged in the West, with settlers battling the Native Americans and struggling against the elements. Yet another threat to frontier life is made clear when John Fain and his band of cutthroats descend on the McCandles ranch and kill practically everyone present. They kidnap youngest of the McCandles clan and thrust a ransom note at Martha McCandles, the stoic matriarch of the family. Martha receives offers of assistance from the army and the Rangers, but instead sends a message to her ex-husband Jacob, requesting his return to the ranch. Jacob left a decade ago, turned out by Martha for his womanizing ways, but he is not in the least perturbed by having missed his three boys grow into men. He is a straightforward, freedom-loving man who roams the country buying and selling livestock, solitary except for his uninventively named dog, Dog.

McCandles returns to the ranch, awkwardly reunites with his sons and plans to deliver the million dollar ransom to the location shown on the note. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment recognizing the obsolescence of traditional Westerns, Jacob, who stubbornly insists on riding horseback, is ignobly relegated to act as backup for the younger men who speed off in then-modern automobiles to save the boy. However, Jacob comes out on top when the men are ambushed by the Fain gang and suffer casualties, and only he presses on with his Native-American ally Sam, his two sons James and Michael, and the trusty Dog. Much time is spent depicting their voyage into Mexico, near the end of which Fain informs them to bring the ransom to a town called Escondero.

When they arrive at Escondero, they sense that the place is crawling with Fain’s men, so they create an elaborate ambush to kill them. Fain responds by sending for Jacob, warning that if anything is amiss when they collect the ransom the boy will be shot by a hidden sniper. At this time the sons find out that there is nothing but newspaper cuttings in the trunk, which at first outrages them, then they realize heroism inherent to the fact that Jacob refuses to negotiate with outlaws. It does not take long after they ride into Fain’s hideout for Jacob to initiate a shootout. This ends in the bloody death of Fain and his gang and victory for Jacob who recovers his grandson. In fact, the film ends with a sort of grotesque optimism. In the freeze frame of a beaming Jacob embracing his kin after delivering the classic line “Let’s go home,” there are two conspicuous absentees; these are Jacob’s long-time Native-American friend Sam and his loyal beast Dog, both of whom were hacked to death by machete and disturbingly forgotten by the celebratory heroes.

Big Jake fits squarely into a history of racial iconography that associates white individuals with mastery over nature through science and technology and other races with being “in touch” with nature, or existing in a “primitive” relation to it. The film highlights how the white characters are at the technological forefront of 1909; they compress time and distance with automobiles, make the seasons irrelevant with canned food, hunt with more advanced firearms and exploit natural resources with oil wells. In contrast, the Mexicans by and large blend into the landscape, such as women perpetually washing clothes by the riverside, as does the Native-American character, who materializes out of nowhere and is uncannily attuned to his surroundings.

However, despite the dearth of Mexican characters, Mexico is projected as a respected foreign power. The army general who offers to help Martha McCandles takes pains to describe how he has been granted permission by the Mexican government to make an incursion in its territory. Mexico and the U.S. are shown to be observant of border-crossing protocol, much to the dismay of the criminals, one of whom wrongly announces “There ain’t nothing they can do to us here” upon entering Mexico. The film also makes a point of holding a mirror to American racial prejudices by showing the more extreme prejudices supposedly held in Mexico. When the heroes check into a hotel in Escondero the clerk frankly states that dogs are allowed, but not Indians, and then a Chinese man is shown exiting a room. This ridiculous racial, and even species, hierarchy may shock audiences, but it is no more arbitrary than the hierarchy at the McCandles hacienda amongst the black and Mexican servants. Just as territoriality indicates sameness between Mexico and the United States, as both countries have strong state apparatus to maintain borders, so too does prejudice in that both countries have a self-entitled dominant race.

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