Of the movies I’ve been looking at so far, and those I’ll feature next, Chisum (1970) is the only one where the Kid is not one of the main characters. That’s not to say he doesn’t play a significant role in the story, just that he’s not the one viewers are asked to focus on. First and foremost, this is a John Wayne film – he plays the title character, one of the prime movers in the Lincoln County War, and the plot revolves around him. I’ve always enjoyed this picture even though I’m aware it’s no classic – it’s solid, entertaining and, for the most part, well made.
The film tells its version of the Lincoln County War and, in particular, the role played by John S Chisum (John Wayne). The title character is presented here as a heroic pioneer whose patriarchal position sees him drawn into conflict with Murphy (Forrest Tucker) over not only the latter’s expansionist plans but also his casual disregard for the livelihoods of Lincoln’s less influential citizens. As the stirring opening credits fade there’s the image of Chisum sitting magisterially astride his mount and surveying all the vast territory he has conquered. All would seem well with the world, despite the dark mutterings of his old friend Pepper (Ben Johnson), as long as this weathered cattle baron holds sway over the territory. However, Murphy’s men are already stoking the fires by masterminding raids on Chisum’s herd. An early confrontation with a group of hired rustlers leads to a shootout and the first contact between Chisum and the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel). Billy’s reputation precedes him and Chisum regards him with wariness in spite of the hearty recommendation of fellow rancher Tunstall (Patric Knowles). Whatever reservations he may have are driven to the sidelines by the continued sniping attacks of Murphy and the corrupt lawmen and hired guns he’s got working for him. More men and guns are drifting into Lincoln and the scene seems set for all out war between the two factions. As the situation deteriorates the Tunstall/Chisum ranks are bolstered by the arrival of an ex-buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). The movie doesn’t really lay out any specific rivalry between Garrett and the Kid – save for an insipid and wholly unnecessary romantic triangle involving Chisum’s neice – except to show that Garrett’s older and more experienced man has chosen a path that’s governed by caution as opposed to the Kid’s impulsiveness. When Tunstall is murdered by Murphy’s hirelings the fat is very definitely in the fire; Billy embarks on a killing spree to avenge his boss, and Chisum (who’s still shielding the Kid discreetly) sees himself pushed to the limit too. The climax comes with a potted and compressed version of the Battle of Lincoln that’s only brought to an end by the intervention of Chisum and a spectacular cattle stampede that he orchestrates.
Both the strengths and weaknesses of Chisum can be seen in the casting. Both Wayne and Forrest Tucker butt heads impressively as the two hard men at the centre of the storm. I remember hearing or reading a comment once that Tucker was one of the most graceful riders ever to mount a horse, but he does none of that here. He’s the manipulative businessman quietly pulling the strings and calling in favours, but he does so with a craftiness and cunning that’s a lot of fun to watch. Wayne, in contrast, is the typical outdoors individualist with a simple philosophy and a straightforward approach to dealing with problems. It’s one of Wayne’s most enjoyable late career roles; it may not be his best but his massive screen presence is used to great effect and he does bring real warmth to his character. On the other hand, the younger stars – Glenn Corbett and Geoffrey Deuel – are just about adequate as Garrett and the Kid. Corbett probably comes off better by being on the “right” side and getting the more sympathetic handling whereas Deuel’s Kid is little more than a cypher who flits in and out of the action to knock off whoever’s next in line. Once again the support cast, consisting of a virtual who’s who of western players, comes to the rescue. Ben Johnson’s part is not a huge one but his long acquaintance with the Duke means that the scenes they share have a kind of easy going charm and are full of good-natured humour. For the others, just reading through the list of names – Patric Knowles, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Ray Teal, Hank Worden et al – should give an indication of the depth of talent involved. Like many of Andrew V McLaglen’s pictures, Chisum is a mix of the good and the not so good. The action scenes are generally well handled but the tacked on romance is both poorly conceived and badly executed. There’s also an unwelcome tendency to indulge in cheap looking, TV movie style zooms at inappropriate moments. Having said that, William Clothier’s photography and Dominic Frontiere’s score help offset some of the other technical shortcomings.
The UK DVD of Chisum from Warners offers a nice, sharp anamorphic scope transfer that boasts strong colour and a clean image. The disc has a short feature on the making of the film and a commentary track with the director. The movie itself isn’t one of the great westerns and it has plenty of historical goofs – for example, Chisum’s fictitious stampede to halt the Battle of Lincoln, and the violent deaths of Murphy and Jesse Evans – yet it’s one with a high rewatch value. In fact, it’s one of those pictures that I used to test drive movie guides in the past. Reviews are, by necessity, subjective and it’s hard to lay your hands on those volumes that are likely to suit one’s own tastes. I once hit upon the method of browsing guides to see what they had to say about a selection of films that I knew were no classics but still pleased me. Chisum was almost always among the choices. If the reviewer trashed the movie then it wasn’t for me; if, on the other hand, it got a generally positive but guarded write up then it was probably one I could depend on. As such, that’s still more or less the way I view this picture – an enjoyable and competent mid-range western that’s worth seeing.