There are several scenes in “Big Jake” where strangers are surprised to see Jacob McCandles, telling him, “I thought you were dead.” The running joke could be an analogy for the younger days of Wayne’s career and the waning days of the classical Western genre. With American New Wave cinema introducing new voices in Hollywood and the blockbuster era on the horizon, the classical Western was dying a slow death in the 1970s.
However, John Wayne wasn’t about to change with the times. Nearing the end of his career, “Big Jake” was one of Wayne’s eight final films, all but two of which were Westerns. By the time he made “Big Jake,” Wayne’s health had begun to fail him. But that wasn’t going to slow the legend down. After all, Wayne was coming off his only Academy Award for Best Actor for 1969’s “True Grit.”
In the book “John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth” author Michael Munn writes about Wayne’s age and how he worked it into his film career. Wayne made the choice to continue with the Western tough guy image, even in his advancing age. It was much to the chagrin of friend and legendary director Howard Hawks, who thought that Wayne was throwing away his legacy. He told Wayne, “You can’t play gunfighters at your age anymore.”
Rather than listen to Hawks, Wayne re-made his image as the aging cowboy, saving some of his best work for last. He reprised his role as one-eyed Rooster Cogburn in 1975’s “True Grit” follow-up “Rooster Cogburn” with commercial success, and his final film “The Shootist” made /Fim’s 20 Best Westerns of All Time list.
But during this period of his career, Wayne was also hiding a painful truth from the public.