Review: Big Jake (1971)

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

Label: Prometheus Records  

Catalogue Nr.: PCR 512



When big name actors suddenly notice their higher age, they tend to do films that cope with the issues of changing times and generational conflicts. In George Sherman's last western Big Jake, John Wayne plays the aging farmer Jacob 'Jake' McCandles whose grandson is kidnapped by a horde of bandits lead by John Fain. The kidnapping and following rescue operation reunites big Jake with his two boys James and Michael who want to pay ransom for little Jake and have furthermore very little respect for their father's old cowboy-way. Since Wayne was considered too old for playing the action hero again, much of the film concentrates on the generation conflict between Jake and his sons and Jake fights bandit Fain with logical thinking rather than guns. The unusual Wayne-western takes place during the dawn of the new century with automobiles as well as other technological advancements and equipment making appearances but they are mainly rendered useless during the course of the film and Jake continuously lectures his boys that sometimes a bit of the old way is never wrong, that age should be respected. Certainly the kind of pretentious moralistic sub-plot that the aging Wayne seemed to love.

The score:

Due to his numerous classic western scores like The Magnificent Seven (1960), Bernstein was as much a legend of the genre as actor John Wayne, so the Wayne-Bernstein collaboration was just one of those inevitable pairings in film history. Big Jake was one of the later entries of this fruitful collaboration and thus the aging of the Duke and the sub-plot of generation conflicts did not remain unacknowledged in the music by composer Elmer Bernstein. Where large and lush big-sky orchestral statements of Bernstein's Americana themes usually dominate his western music, Bernstein choose a more restrained nature for Big Jake with the naturally excellent western theme for the aging titular character often being played on solo trumpet or strings instead of being blown out by the full ensemble. Furthermore, the theme itself, despite being a great and memorable western tune, has a more anxious side to it instead of the usually driving 'ride & freedom' nature of, say, Bernstein's theme for the seven magnificent. He even sometimes utilized a slightly more contemporary orchestration (including a modern sounding bass) and chord progression as well as the integration of different musical styles to acknowledge the beginning of the 20th century.

Already the "Main Titles" cue playing over the opening narration/montage of the new centuries achievements is a mixed-bag of styles, jumping back and forth between tipsy, jazzy music ala Bernstein's Academy Award winning score for Thoroughly Modern Milly (1967), Indian tribal tones and smoky, honky-tonk saloon music. A statement of Big Jake's (main) theme briefly sneaks into the stylistic medley as John Wayne's name appears on the screen and the theme for Fain and his gang is introduced on restrained strings and woodwinds accompanied by classic guitar during the cue's latter half as we see the bandits riding to Jake's farm. Fain's villain theme is pretty striking and has a pretty modern ring to it with the final few chords almost seemingly coming from Hans Zimmer (I know some will probably see this as an insult, however there is no other way to describe it any better). After this truly varied introduction, we see the bandits approaching the farm through a window and Bernstein responds with suspense music for guitar and trumpet in "Delilah's View / (...)" to raise attention that something cruel is about to happen. The cue continues with "(...) / The Riders" that brings a short passage of action music and a big, pounding statement of the villain theme as Fain's gang arrives at the farm and exchanges some dirty looks with the inhabitants.

Architectural action music suddenly explodes in "Massacre/(...)" with strikes for brass strings and the villain theme build around as the gang starts firing on innocent people. While I don't consider action music his biggest strength, this lengthy cue offers some quite complex and exciting variations. The Kidnapping of "(...) / Little Jake / (...)" is underlined by nervous low-played piano and a piano motif based on the song "Frère Jacques" for the puny little boy is further introduced. Why did Bernstein base little Jake's motif on "Frère Jacques"? I can only make wild guessing here, but the song has German origins and is called "Bruder Jakob", so probably it has something to do with the name Jakob (little Jake) and Bernstein used it as some sort of musical in-joke. Although his usage of the tune is quite funny, it also pulls you out of an otherwise very good action cue. The third half of the cue is called "(...) / Mexico", offers a striking statement of the villain theme and powerfully enhances a shot where Fain's gang rides through a river to Mexico. The scene itself looks rather lame since they are only riding through a relatively tiny water but Bernstein's score turns it into something absolutely phenomenal - he was a magician in doing just that. Little Jake's "Frère Jacques" motif in "Piano Memory / (...)" is bridging over to  a horn statement of the main theme "(...) / All Jake / (...)" as Wayne's main character is introduced and a full big-sky statement of the theme follows in "(...) / On The Move".

An outright comic cue follows where Bernstein goes over the top with wild circus music for orchestra, banjo and percussion as a motif for Jake's son Michael and his insane "Motorcycle". "All Jake and Raider" is pure vintage Bernstein with a big-sky travelling statement of the main theme as the convoy of automobiles and Jake on the horse drives to the rescue. A lengthy cue is to follow and it's first half with "Survey / (...)" offers some restrained suspense music for strings ala The Great Escape (1963) before it goes into a variation of the main theme followed by a toned down variation of the villain theme as they prepare an "(...) / Ambush / (...)". A shot of the automobile caravan driving by is accompanied by a excellent driving variation of the villain theme that is a delightful Bernstein-highlight and warns us that they are about to run into a trap shortly. The dramatic ambush action music contains the motorcycle theme to accompany Michael's attempts to distract the bandits with his technological power-horse and a driving piano-line of little Jake's motif follows the boy's hopeless escape attempt. "Make Camp" contains a sad version of the motorcycle motif. It was supposed to play over a scene where Jake finds Michael lying unconscious next to his destroyed motorcycle but remained unused.

More travelling music to follow, this time more restrained as the bandits are riding by with Bernstein stating little Jake's motif and turning our attention to the boy (excellent how he manages to direct our attention from a group of guys on horses to the small child they hold). The main theme returns in "Followed" to accompany yet another travelling shot before some more funny music for strings and banjo in a very similar vein to Bernstein's main theme for one of his latter comedy score's, Buddy (1997) appears in "Bullets Galore". A small and restrained version of the main theme accompanied by gentle classic guitar in "Pack Train" underlines another travelling shot (gosh, they surely travel a damn lot in these westerns). "Getting Old" follows right after Jake and Fain have met for the first time and goes from a sad statement of little Jake's motif into more action music as two men are trying to assault and rob the box with the ransom. After the assault, Jake and his sons arrive at the Mexican oil town Eskondero where the five mexican source cues from the end of the album are played during a big town festival while most of the action in the town was left unscored. The night ride to the ransom delivery is scored with gentle flutes and harp as heard in "On The Way / (...)" followed by a statement of the villain theme to note a coming storm while bouncy, sneaky strings and flutes escort Michael as he sneaks through the dark to the bandit's place and calm guitar as well as castanets follow Jake as he meets with Fain again.

Heartfelt music for piano and violin follows in "Reunion" as the bandits show Jake his grandson. "Tricks / Little Jake Again / (...)" begins with suspense music for flutes starts the lengthy final cue followed by shrieking strings as the deal fails and the guns continue the negotiation. A cat and mouse game follows with Bernstein jumping back and forth between suspense and action though its all connected to the film so closely that the musical finale is rather tiresome. A weird array of sounds is heard when one of the bandits tries to stab little Jake who is hiding in haystack but gentle strings quickly take over and continue into a brief end titles reprise of the main theme in "(...) / Going Home" after the villains are killed and grandpa Jake saved the day.



Score as heard in the film: 81%

Score as heard on CD: 71%

TOTAL: 76%


The presentation:

The guys at Prometheus Records obviously did solid work on the Big Jake score. Given the only surviving sources of the music were monaural tapes, the sound quality is still rather good and not as muddy as the original monaural version of The Magnificent Seven (1960). There is of course a lack of detail especially during more massive passages were individual instruments are drown out due to the sound distorting and there is a lack in the higher frequencies (which can be corrected with a good equalizer) but overall it is very solid mono from beginning to end. It is also very positive that they have put the source music at the end instead of putting these cues into their chronologically correct place. If there is one negative thing to say about the presentation, it would be the front cover. Come on guys, seldom have I seen such a pointless front on a CD. Of course Wayne is a legend, but even a collage of characters as seen in black and white on page two of the booklet would have been more appealing than the Duke's tortured face glancing at nothing. Better ignore the poor front cover and jump right to the well-written liner notes by fellow film music critic James Southall.  

Presentation by the Label: 70%



Elmer Bernstein composed a somewhat unusual score for Big Jake (1971). While the typical western-ingredients like a strong theme (for the main character as well as one for the villains), the travelling music and the fast-paced action cues are there, for the most part it seems to be a little bit more restrained especially when the big-sky moments step in. Some unusual ideas are implied as well like the stylistic montage for the "Main Title", the comic fun in "Motorcycle" or the weird sound effect in "(...) / Little Jake Again / (...)". One thing that annoyed me a little was the repeated use of "Frère Jacques" as little Jake's motif which is pretty distracting but certainly creates a nice musical in-joke. As it is often the case with Bernstein, you will only get the full meaning of the music when watching the film but a notable decrease of energy towards the end of the score is sadly evident. In fact, it starts off so strong with so many well-crafted action music and musical ideas going on that the ending ends up offering to little moments of note to be equally entertaining. Probably because the ending of the film is rather uninspired itself and you can really feel that Bernstein was focused on the changing-times/coming-into-age sub-plot and the great visuals during the first half of the film rather than the predictable cat and mouse game at the end.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg



01. Main Title (04:34)
02. Delilah's View/The Riders (02:10)
03. Massacre/Little Jake/Mexico (05:33)
04. Piano Memory/All Jake/On The Move (02:12)
05. Motorcycle (00:45)
06. All Jake And Raider (02:32)
07. Survey/Ambush/Buzzards (08:40)
08. Make Camp (00:55)
09. On The Trail (00:51)
10. Followed (01:58)
11. Bullets Galore (01:16)
12. Pack Train (00:31)
13. Getting Old (02:23)
14. On The Way/Onward Jake (05:08)
15. Reunion (01:06)
16. Tricks/Little Jake Again/Going Home (11:08)
17. Maracumee (source) (01:26)
18. Tapatio (source) (01:52)
19. El Cafe (source) (01:41)
20. La Sadunga (source) (02:03)
21. Extra (source) (01:24)