Big Jake unites both old-timers and new-comers. IMDB tells of John Wayne's stock company, including Maureen O'Hara, against whom Wayne plays once again. And then there is both a Wayne and a Mitchum of newer mintage. The film stresses the fact that it takes place in 1909. Much of the West is still the same. But in addition to horses, mules, and Winchesters, there are now automobiles, motorcycles, and newfangled gas-powered guns and rifles with telescopic lenses. The West, however, is still as lawless as it wants to be, and if it were not for men like Big Jake, force majeure would be the decisive factor in all disputes.
But this is not a film about a matter of contention. A large band of outlaws under John Fain's (Richard Boone) command brutally attack the McCandles Ranch and ride away with the youngest, a mere boy. They ask a million dollars for his return. Neither Martha McCandles (Maureen O'Hara) nor Jake (Wayne) agree to as much as a single dollar. These men have already shot up the entire household, consisting of very peaceful men and women, some related, others not. Fain, moreover, is devoid of any redeeming value, something new to movies at the time. A long line of characters will be developed from here on who are simply inhuman, not just bad, flawed, or somehow depraved.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were and still are movies in which the "bad guy" is more sympathetic and attractive to an audience than the "good guy". This generally makes for an interesting plot. But for those who still think that movies are movies and reality reality, never the twain shall meet, think again. The world, too, got unfriendlier around the same time. The John Wayne persona, if you will, had always served as a kind of antidote or reminder that leadership would provide. But in the movies, and the world, going forward from '71, goodness or righteousness, according to the overall American concept, would prevail only at incrementally higher and higher costs.
Still, this is only a movie review. Happily as such, Big Jake is a winner. Sure enough, everybody on camera is a day older, but the genre itself was by now fighting a losing battle. Not only westerns, but musicals, gangster flicks, and melodramas, for that matter, in the old-fashioned mold, would have to change to survive. But this western is not so very different as to be unrecognizable. Big Jake, "Dog", along with a crack Indian scout have their work cut out for them. Their adversaries are meaner than ever. But so much the better while watching scene after scene en route to another victory of good over evil.