What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Home Sweet Home Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Taking Up Room. In order to let you fully understand what this event is all about, a direct quote is my best bet.
This event is devoted to movies about home and family. Finding a home, losing a home, going home. Anything to do with home. And anything to do with family, whether won, lost, or changed. Or family members making movies together, such as John and Hayley Mills, or Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman even though the latter aren’t together anymore. If they were ever bound by blood or marriage, they count as family.~ Rebecca from Taking Up Room
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
A benefit of being a dedicated “John Wayne-o-Phile” is knowing this movie. Given some of the legendary titles in “The Duke’s” filmography, “Big Jake” can be easily over-looked. That’s a shame because in many respects, it is the perfect prototypical Western. It’s has a super-hateable “bad guy,” a larger-than-life “good guy,” and a healthy dose of “frontier justice.” It’s also perfectly cast, and in fitting with the theme of this blog-a-thon, there is a strong allegory about the importance of family. Not to mention, Wayne appears in this film with two of his real-life sons…and it was also produced by another son (Michael Wayne).
Set in the waning days of the “Old West,” “Big Jake” takes place in 1909. Martha McCandles (played by Maureen O’Hara) and her three sons Jeff (played by Bobby Vinton), Michael (played by Christopher Mitchum), and James (played by Patrick Wayne) own and operate a massive ranch.
The main story line starts with the arrival of a group of desperados led by John Fain (played by Richard Boone). They clearly look like bad news, and they take no time to prove it. Fain and his men immediately begin a murderous plundering of the McCandles’ ranch; several ranch hands are killed, Jeff McCandles is badly-wounded, and his son Jacob “Little Jake” McCandles (played by Ethan Wayne) is kidnapped.
As Fain and his men make their escape, they drop a ransom note on Jeff, who lies bleeding badly in the dirt. Martha reads it to discover the price of the safe return of “Little Jake” is one million dollars. While the Fain gang is making their way toward Mexico, Martha assembles the money and places it in a strongbox.
Representatives from both the United States Army and the Texas Rangers offer to deliver the box following the map left along with the ransom note. However, Martha has another idea. She sends word of what has happened to her estranged husband Jacob “Big Jake” McCandles (played by John Wayne), believing he is the “only man harsh and unpleasant enough” to deal with Fain. “Big Jake” hops the next train back home, where he gets a greeting which comes in three stages.
First, Martha adds greater detail to what she’s already told “Big Jake.”
Then outside the train station, Jake encounters a group of Texas Rangers led by Buck Dugan (played by John Doucette) resplendent with their state-of-the-art REO Runabout automobiles.
Dugan offers the assistance of the Rangers, but “Big Jake” declines, stating he would rather not risk their lives. Instead, he sends for his old friend Sam Sharpnose (played Bruce Cabot) who is an Apache Indian and skilled man-hunter.
The final part of the greeting party is his son James, who is embittered at his father’s absence and expresses his displeasure by repeatedly and derisively calling him “Daddy.” This scene provides the film’s first hints of “comic relief” punctuated by the arrival of his other son Michael on anther new-fangled gadget…a motorcycle.
“Big Jake” asks Martha if she has the money. She shows him the strongbox, and as he looks in it, “Big Jake” gives Martha the “raised-eyebrow” look asking if this is what she really wants. She tells him that many people died in the raid, and she believes the killers should be given “exactly what they asked for.” He agrees as Martha gives him the weapons, supplies, and horses she has waiting for him, as well as a mule to carry the strongbox.
As this is taking place, Michael says he spotted Fain and his gang heading for a canyon. Michael believes the Rangers with their REO Runabouts can out-run the kidnappers to the canyon where they could ambush them. Against “Big Jake’s” wishes, Martha decides to take the gamble and sends Michael and the Rangers to ambush the kidnappers in the canyon. Originally, James intended to ride with his father, but changes his mind and sets off with his brother and the Rangers. “Big Jake” and Martha clash over this decision in a reminder of why their marriage didn’t work.
Despite this, she tells him that if the ambush plan fails, it’s up to him to deliver the strongbox and bring “Little Jake” home. “Big Jake” sets out to meet Sam Sharpnose to begin their mission. Meanwhile, as the Rangers approach the canyon where they intend to ambush the kidnappers, Michael tells them while scouting ahead, he has lost sight of Fain and his gang. One of the Rangers says this is a potentially deadly gamble since they don’t know whether they are ahead or behind the kidnappers. James still wants to continue with the ambush plan, and Dugan agrees saying he wants to get the boy back safely to his mother, so he’s willing to take any risk necessary.
Dugan’s statement could easily end up in the “famous last words” category. Fain reached the canyon first, and the ambushers became the ambushees. All three of the Rangers’ cars are disabled, and several of the men are killed or wounded.
A bit later, “Big Jake” and Sam arrive on at the scene of the ambush. “Big Jake” tells Dugan that he has no sympathy for him and that he disapproved of the risky plan back at the train station. He also warns Dugan that if he finds out the kidnappers have killed “Little Jake,” he will come back and kill Dugan himself.
James and Michael join their father and Sam Sharpnose as they continue following the ransom map. But when they set up camp for the night, they are approached by a stranger. Unbeknownst to them, the “stranger” is actually John Fain who is pretending to be simply a messenger. Fain warns the rescue party that a group of bandits are now after the strongbox, and reminds them that if they fail to deliver the ransom – for whatever reason – the kidnappers will kill the boy.
After Fain leaves, Sam Sharpnose tells “Big Jake” two of the so-called bandits are also watching their camp. Sam sets out to kill them, but one escapes. “Big Jake” now knows not only will the kidnappers be in the town where the ransom is to be delivered, so will the would-be thieves.
Upon their arrival, Sam and the McCandles check into a hotel, making sure to let all those in town know where they are, thus baiting a trap for the thieves. The thieves take the bait and they are killed. But in the exchange of gunfire, the strongbox is damaged and the secret plan hatched by Martha is revealed. Both James and Michael suspect “Big Jake” stole the money, until he tells them their mother refused to pay for having several men killed and her grandson kidnapped.
Now the time has come to deal with Fain. One of his gang comes to the hotel to direct the McCandles and Sam Sharpnose to an old fort on the edge of town where the ransom exchange is to take place. “Big Jake” leads them into the fort, where Fain gives the order to kill the boy when he discovers the strongbox is full of newspaper clippings.
Naturally, the gunfight is on at this point. I always try to avoid spoilers regardless of the age of the film I’m discussing is because there’s always those who have yet to see it. So, I’ll give you the ending in terms of a gambling proposition. There’s not very many John Wayne movies where he has “before the title” billing in which his character dies at the end…what do you think the odds are this is one of them?
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
It’s pretty hard to top John Wayne’s status as a Hollywood icon. In the world of hockey, you could easily say the same thing about Gordie Howe. That’s why on a blog which marks the intersection of classic cinema and sports, this isn’t the first time “Mr. Hockey” has rated mention here.
As such, there’s no way a list mentioning all-time greats in either world could be complete without Howe. That means when I made a list of great film directors and their equivalents in the sports world, Howe found his way to #4 along with Stanley Kubrick. With a similar list for my favorite actors and their sporting equivalents, Howe skated a shift at #6 alongside Gene Hackman. But it was the list of all-time great hockey “enforcers” and their fictional cop counterparts which saw Howe at the head of the class.
Even if you don’t accept those lists as bona fides of Howe’s status as a cultural icon, there’s really no higher accolade in that department than having a cameo on The Simpsons. That’s why when I was making the list of favorite actors and their comparisons, Howe almost ended up with the #1 spot alongside John Wayne.
Who knows what could have been if only Wayne had made a hockey movie…
That notwithstanding, Wayne and Howe still have plenty in common. Sure, it was plainly apparent they were both giants at their craft. The cinema made John Wayne a “larger-than life” figure. But in the days before cable television brought all sports into your living room all the time, Howe often said it was the media who made him out to be a hockey version of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack with mythical power.
But what actually made Gordie Howe a giant was the fact he was the greatest Right Winger to ever put on skates. In his 25 years as a member of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Detroit Red Wings between 1946-71, Howe notched 786 goals, 1,023 assists for 1,809 total points, to go with 1,643 penalty minutes. In other words, not only was he agile enough to skate around you, he could run over you like a loaded cement truck at full speed.
“Big Jake” was released the very same year Gordie Howe retired from the Detroit Red Wings. Lots of ex-jocks have made the leap to the big screen, and like ex-college football player John Wayne, Howe had all the hallmarks of a “tough guy” in a western.
In terms of physicality, Howe and Wayne were both specimens. John Wayne towered over most in Hollywood being nearly six and a half feet tall; his physical presence was obvious. But with Howe, the equipment under a hockey uniform hid his sculpted physique, and far too many found out a bit too late they had just tugged on Superman’s cape. As an aside, you can head over to a truly great hockey blog called Puckstruck for an accounting of the night Gordie Howe threw “the most famous punch in NHL history.”
Underneath that Detroit Red Wings sweater was 200 pounds of pure muscle. Howe was “buff” 50 years before the term was even invented, and this was in an era where weight-training was eschewed as it was thought it made players “muscle-bound and slow.” Howe was just one of those “freaks of nature;” he was the best player in the game for nearly a quarter-century because he was the player you would create in a video game who could do it all.
Howe retired from the Detroit Red Wings in 1971, but the legend of Gordie Howe isn’t even close to it’s final chapter. In terms of career accomplishments, Howe achieved all there was to achieve in hockey. But as he got older, a new dream was dawning for Howe; one that is at the heart of the hidden sports analogy for a “family” themed blog-a-thon. Howe wanted to play in an NHL game with his sons, and now it looked like it was never going to happen.
But by the end of the 1970-71 season, Gordie Howe was 43 years old and even his body of chiseled marble was showing cracks. While his sons were up and coming players in their own right, Marty was only 17 years old and his younger brother Mark was 16. At the time, a player had to be in the year of their 20th birthday in order to be signed to an NHL contract.
But in 1972, a new professional hockey league was coming into existence. Like every start-up in the history of professional sports, the World Hockey Association (WHA) needed to give potential fans a reason to show up.
At the time, Howe had no intentions of returning to the ice and he was recovering from the surgical repair of a chronic wrist injury. But the general manager and coach of the WHA’s Houston Aeros was a guy named Bill Dineen. Not only was he in control of player personnel decisions for the fledgling club, he was also a teammate of Howe with the Red Wings in the 1950s.
On top of that, the Aeros’ assistant coach was a guy named Doug Harvey, who was a great NHL defenseman with both Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers in the 1950s and 1960s…and was well-known and respected by Howe. As a defenseman, Harvey had an eye for talent at that position…coincidentally the very same one played by both Marty and Mark Howe.
What brought everything together was a phone placed by Colleen Howe (Gordie’s wife and Marty and Mark’s mother) to WHA Commissioner Gary Davidson. Colleen knew of Gordie’s dream to skate with his sons, and was frustrated at certain road-blocks being presented by things like the NHL’s age restriction. She suspected that age restriction existed so that NHL teams couldn’t poach players out of “junior” leagues like the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), and said as much to Davidson. His response was to tell her that the WHA had no such agreements…and the dream was resurrected.
Seemingly in one fell swoop, the WHA became a “real” hockey league with the signings of NHL stars Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers (the subject of his own installment in this series), and Gordie Howe. But more important to this story, Howe and his sons were now together on a professional hockey roster.
The Howe family made their WHA debut in 1973 during a pre-season double-header at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The twin-bill featured the Chicago Cougars vs. the New York Golden Blades and the Howes’ Houston Aeros vs. Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets. True to form, Gordie Howe “put the biscuit in the basket” on his first shift.
That first goal as a Houston Aero wouldn’t be the last. Despite what many thought, Howe had no intention of simply being a “famous name” whose primary role was to sell tickets. At 45 years old, Howe was old enough to be the father of most of the player’s in the WHA; he was literally the father of two of them. Not to mention, he was still dealing with the aforementioned surgically-repaired wrist. That notwithstanding, Howe tallied 31 goals and 69 assists for 100 points in 70 games. The next season, he was the WHA’s leading scorer. In 1974 and 1975, Gordie Howe and his sons led the Aeros to consecutive WHA Championships.
In 1977, Gordie, Marty, and Mark Howe all signed with another WHA franchise, the New England Whalers. While they were still playing professional hockey together, the WHA was a long way from being the National Hockey League. In New England, the Whalers played the role of the “red-headed step-child” to the NHL’s “Original Six” Boston Bruins.
But the definitive story exemplifying the financial woes of the WHA occurred in the 1974 play-offs. The Chicago Cougars were another WHA team playing “second fiddle” to an NHL “Original Six” franchise; in this case, the Chicago Blackhawks. In the only year the Cougars got into the post-season, they met the similarly-struggling New England Whalers in the first round. That initial series saw Chicago dispatch the Whalers with relative ease, but venue issues would play havoc with the next two.
The semi-final series saw the Cougars facing the Toronto Toros. Chicago’s International Amphitheatre served as the Cougars normal home arena, but because nobody expected the team to be playing beyond the end of the regular season, the arena had booked a production of Peter Pan featuring former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby in the title role. The Cougars couldn’t use Chicago Stadium because that was home to the Blackhawks and the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls, both of whom were in the midst of play-off runs of their own.
The option of playing their home games in another city was nixed for fear they would draw less fans than they already were, and every ticket sold mattered. They needed the money.
Ultimately, that decision meant the Cougars would be playing their home play-off games in the Randhurst Twin Ice Arena. This was a public ice-skating rink adjacent to a suburban Chicago mall, and even under ideal conditions it could only host 2,000 spectators who would have their butts planted on uncomfortable steel bleachers befitting a “beer-league” softball field.
Despite this, the Cougars defeated the Toros to advance to the championship round where they would face the Howe family and the Houston Aeros. At first, the Cougars thought they could return to the International Amphitheatre since the Peter Pan show had completed it’s run. But again, because the Amphitheatre’s management didn’t anticipate the need for the hockey surface to extend beyond the regular season, they had already hired contractors to remove the portable ice surface and dismantle the copper pipes used to chill the ice. The Cougars were forced back to Randhurst, and the Aeros swept them to win the championship.
By the time the Howes had left Houston for New England, it looked as though the dream of playing together in the NHL was too far over the horizon. But as luck would have it, the WHA and the NHL completed a merger in 1979, and the New England Whalers were one of the WHA franchises brought into the National Hockey League.
That meant at the start of the 1979-80 season, Gordie and Mark Howe were in the NHL together as members of the now-Hartford Whalers. Later that season, the Whalers signed Marty Howe. He played in Hartford’s final six games of the season making Gordie, Marty, and Mark Howe the only father-and-two sons combination ever to skate together as teammates in NHL history.
But from that day in 1973, the Howes got to play together for the better part of seven seasons. That ended in 1980 when Gordie retired at the age of 52. But just like his first days coming out of retirement in 1973, Gordie Howe had no interest in just being the legend used to sell tickets. In his final season of 1979-80 season, he played in all 80 Whalers games notching 15 goals, 26 assists. and 42 penalty minutes…which meant just like “Big Jake” McCandles, he wasn’t afraid to teach youngsters who haven’t yet learned to respect their elders to respect their betters.
All along the way, in 32 seasons of professional hockey, Gordie Howe went from being a kid from Floral, Saskatchewan to “Mr. Hockey;” the face of the national sport of Canada.
By the time Gordie Howe hung up his skates for good in 1980, he was the all-time leader with 1,767 games played (he still holds that record as of this writing), 801 goals (now 2nd to Wayne Gretzky), 1,049 assists (now 8th overall), and 1,850 points (now 4th overall). He was also a four-time Stanley Cup Champion, a 23-time All-Star, a six-time Art Ross Trophy winner, a six-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and finished in the top-five in scoring for 20 consecutive seasons. For what it’s worth, he also won two WHA Championships and scored 184 goals after the age of 45.
But if it were still possible to ask Gordie what he valued most of all his hockey distinctions, my money would be on the time he got to spend with his sons as professional hockey players. I would bet Mark Howe playing in the 1980 All-Star Game and getting a thunderous ovation from the crowd in Detroit would rank high on that list. That moment might only be eclipsed by the day in 2011 when Mark Howe joined his father in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
All tolled, Gordie Howe was one of the all -time greats of the game…if not the greatest. Mark Howe had a Hall-of-Fame worthy career. Marty spent 11 seasons in two leagues being a pretty damn good defender.
But for all those accolades, there were six games in 1980 during which Gordie, Marty and Mark Howe literally lived a dream.
The Moral of the Story:
Blood is thicker than frozen water.
P.S. This isn’t the first installment of this series discussing a movie made by John Wayne and at least one of his sons.
P.P.S. You can hear Gordie Howe talk about his comeback in an interview he did with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1978.
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