Today I found myself watching the 1971 John Wayne western Big Jake with my dad. My folks were visiting from their home in California and my eleven year old son (knowing that “Papa likes westerns”) found the movie on demand to help fill a drizzly afternoon.
As my 83 year old father dozed intermittently through the Duke’s gunslinging, my son and I watched the story unfold in 20th century technicolor; we were three generations finding some common connection.
I was two in 1971, a world away from 2019 for both me and my dad. He was a vibrant 35 when Big Jake hit the theaters, more than a decade younger than I am now. My son thinks the 90s were forever ago; I can only imagine what he imagines when we say the 1970s. And here we were, watching this movie, a paean to one vision of fathers and sons, gathered together in the living room for a couple of hours.
Today my dad’s eyes mostly follow the sweeping vistas of the epic western, and he chuckles at John Wayne getting tossed in a mud puddle, but his once usual sharpness and focus are gone. His understanding of the plot waxes and wanes, nuance (such as it is) lost to the fog of age.
But Big Jake hangs on a simple premise, telling the story of a kidnapped grandson, about my son’s age, and the heroic grandfather who swoops in to save the day. My son didn’t know that when he pulled the movie up, but there it was, somehow poetically right.
My dad is struggling with dementia now, unable to remember the names of the cats or exactly how he got wherever he happens to be. Snatches of history are still vivid to him: his days working in the Parks and Rec department in Long Beach, his time as a serviceman in Germany, bits from when he and my mom were first married. He’s a fan of routine and right angles, happy with cowboy movies where the predictable hero solves the inevitable problem of bandits terrorizing the village/robbing the bank/making off with a young hostage. John Wayne will take care of things in the end, we all know that, and despite the dated tropes of such movies, for a fellow of my dad’s age and politics, The Duke is just about right.
But Big Jake feels a little different than many old westerns with the inclusion of motorcycles and Model Ts sweeping along the desert alongside horses. This turn of the 20th century new fangled technology baffles the elder Jake of the movie, but delights his kids. A posse in a horseless carriage may chap Jake’s hide, but you should see the motorbike jump the canyon. I could imagine the 1971 audience applauding.
Cowboys in cars getting kidnappers. There’s a Netflix show in that maybe.
It’s just one of the places the movie uses its 1909 setting to introduce some tension between the modern and traditional. John Wayne demurs on using an automobile, of course, drawling the line: “Me and my way’s old fashioned.” When the auto caravan gets ambushed, he’s proven predictably correct. My dad was awake for that exchange, and he smiled at the TV. His way, as best as he can recall it, is old fashioned too.
And yet, as my parents prepare to relocate back to Oregon, downsizing and moving to a place where they can get a little more help, I suspect that John Wayne isn’t quite right.
The rugged independence held in such high regard by most of the westerns I’ve seen stands in contrast to the dependence so many of us have on one another. We rely on kindness, we hope for support, and we benefit from looking out for one another.
There are those around us intent on preying on the elderly: the cable company that gouges my folks to include the Western Channel, the mobile phone company eager to take as much from them as it can. Left to their own devices, I worry about how the world treats my parents and others like them. In a simpler time, perhaps, when fewer technologies competed for our attention and dollars it might have been easier to navigate the online world. Today, when my parents who grew up without cable or cell phones or home computers look at the landscape around them it doesn’t matter how old fashioned they’d like to be; the world isn’t.
…and it’s not always bad. It was my mom getting an iPad that opened the door for video calls where she and my dad could see the grandkids on screen and talk face to face every week. My parents didn’t always have the built in camera exactly pointing at themselves, sometimes it looked up over their shoulders, but we did our best to on our end, and that meant my kids could connect with their grandparents in a way I never did.
I look back at those Facetime conversations with my folks and remember that hanging on the wall above them are two Remington prints of cowboys. I’d never thought of them as cowboy people, but an honest inventory of their home (that bronze of a bucking bronco, that painting of the wagon train in the den, that inexplicable horse collar mirror) suggests otherwise. Big Jake is a familiar guest in their home.
Patient reader, I’m not sure what any of this really means, and certainly not how it connects to my usual bread and butter of education related miscellany. If you’re still reading, I’ll just say that I appreciate your kindness and willingness to listen to a son doing his best. Aging parents is a reality that so many face, and I’m still finding examples of people who do it well. This trail is rough and filled with as many rattlesnakes as it has fresh springs or warm campfires.
Sometimes an afternoon movie is a welcome respite.
So Big Jake rode on, deep into Mexico in search of his grandson and the bandits who stole him. His sons rode with him, exchanging barbs and banter along the way to getting to know each other better. It was quieter on our couch. My son and my dad built a couple of lego spaceships (a decidedly modern pursuit, I thought to myself). I brought tea and snacks from the kitchen. Outside our living room rain fell, quiet and steady.
I’d be foolish to imagine that I have years more of these afternoons with my son and my dad, one on the edge of adolescence, one decidedly in Shakespeare’s sixth age “of lean and slipper’d pantaloon.”
We ride on, in pursuit of what we will, none of us sure about what might be over the next hill.
The crescendo of the film came for Big Jake: a double-cross, a gunfight, a pitchfork impaling one of the worst of the bandits. The bad guys get it in the end. The grandson is rescued. The tension between modern and traditional, between old and new generations fades behind the swelling score and Big Jake and his boys go home.
Would that life were as tidy.
But today… today it was John Wayne. We knew who was going to win. Today my dad, my son, and I watched a grandfather connect with his sons and save his grandson. It was a good day.