Bringing together John Wayne and his three sons, the endearing 1971 Western saw a torch pass to a new generation.
Written by Constance Dunn
In May 1971, a new John Wayne movie was released—Big Jake. The Technicolor Western cast Wayne in familiar territory, playing the role of Jacob “Big Jake” McCandles, who’s come home to avenge an attack on his ranch and rescue his grandson Little Jake from the deadly Fain Gang. Big Jake also starred Christopher Mitchum, son of actor Robert Mitchum, and Wayne’s good friend and contemporary Maureen O’Hara as his estranged wife Martha McCandles.
Big Jake was more than just another Wayne picture. The full-fledged family production featured Wayne’s three real-life sons—Michael, Patrick and Ethan. It also served as a poignant visual bellwether of how far Wayne had come—as a Hollywood star, a cultural icon and a powerful patriarch in the midst of passing important lessons down to a new generation.
This year marks the 50 year anniversary of Big Jake. To commemorate the production, on November 3, three of its principals—Patrick Wayne, Ethan Wayne and Christopher Mitchum—will take part in a panel discussion about the film at Fort Worth Stockyards. The panel will be held at John Wayne: An American Experience, a 10,000-square-foot exhibit located at the Stockyards that’s dedicated to The Duke.
Born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, Wayne moved from his native Iowa to Southern California at age 6. A natural athlete, he attended University of Southern California (USC) on a football scholarship until his career on the turf was cut short by a bodysurfing accident. The strapping 6’4” Wayne then worked behind the scenes on the Fox Film Corporation movie lot until graduating to stand-in and extra work.
During his time at Fox, Wayne would forge relationships with legendary creative heavyweights in Hollywood, notably directors John Ford and Raoul Walsh. Morrison’s first speaking role was in the 1929 Ford film Salute, and his first starring role came courtesy of director Raoul Walsh, who cast him in The Big Trail (1930). Nearly 10 years of film work followed until Wayne’s 1939 breakout role as Ringo Kid in Ford’s hit Stagecoach launched him into the Hollywood stratosphere.
From there, Wayne’s star ascended ever higher throughout the decades. He became an internationally recognized symbol of American ideals, formed a production company (Batjac Productions), and became the father of seven children. By the time Big Jake was filmed, eldest son Michael had graduated to the role of producer, son Patrick was cast as his onscreen son James McCandles, and his youngest, Ethan, portrayed his grandson Little Jake.
The film is rife with Wayne’s onscreen value system, notably his grit and single-mindedness in achieving a heroic mission, which he visibly demonstrates to his offspring. (In life, as in the film, Wayne was a role model. “He wasn’t a person to give advice on any level, whether it be professionally or education or whatever,” says Patrick Wayne of his father. “I think he operated by example.”) Despite the changing times of 1909, the year the movie takes place, Wayne’s McCandles insists on longstanding, and superior, methods—riding a horse instead of a motorcycle; using his trusted gun instead of the new gas-powered model shown to him by his son. The movie even references his position of elder statesman, or someone from another time. Several times in Big Jake his character is told: “I thought you were dead,” to which Wayne as McCandles responds in the negative, once declaring: “Not hardly.” Given the weight of his cultural impact, even 50 years after Big Jake, it’s a response that still rings true.
Join us in the. Big Jake panel discussion with Patrick Wayne, Ethan Wayne and Christopher Mitchum on November 3! The event will start with a pre-panel cocktail reception at 5:30 p.m. at the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit. And, the live panel discussion will follow at 7:30 p.m. at the Cowboy Channel Studio. Tickets are $40/person and will benefit the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. All ages welcome. Purchase tickets here!
Photographs courtesy of John Wayne Enterprises