Sunday, May 1, 2022

#2,747. Chisum (1970) - John Wayne in the 1970s


In his review of Rio Lobo, Roger Ebert, critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, called that 1970 Howard Hawks movie “a John Wayne Western”, and lamented the fact that audiences hadn’t seen one of those in a few years. In fact, he asserted that, along with a few other movies, director Andrew V. McLaglen’s Chisum (also a 1970 western) “didn’t quite understand the mythic nature of the Wayne character, and so we got a lot of scenery and very little chemistry”.

I agree with Mr. Ebert, but only to a point.

Chisum is, indeed, unlike many John Wayne Westerns in that the Duke, despite playing the title role of John Chisum, is ultimately a secondary character. But while he may not be front and center the entire time, his Chisum, with his no-nonsense demeanor, frontier heroism, and determination to see that justice is carried out regardless of the odds, is a John Wayne character through and through.

John Chisum (Wayne), the most powerful cattle rancher in Lincoln County, New Mexico, is none too happy that entrepreneur L.G. Murphy (Forrest Tucker) has been buying up businesses in the area. Joining forces with fellow cattle baron Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles), Chisum does what he can to prevent the unscrupulous Murphy from gaining a foothold in the territory.

But it is going to take more than diplomacy to keep the peace, and when Murphy hires notorious gunman Jess Evans (Richard Jaeckel) to protect his interests, Chisum and Tunstall turn to Billy “The Kid” Bonney (Geoffrey Duell) and Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) for help in what will likely develop into an all-out war.

Many of the characters in Chisum are based on real-life individuals. Chisum, Turnstall, and Murphy were the catalysts of what became known as the 1878 Lincoln County War, a conflict in which Billy the Kid (at the time a protégé of Henry Tunstall’s), Pat Garrett, and many others fought and died. Even Chisum’s niece Sallie, played here by Pamela McMyer, left her mark on history (the real Sallie kept a journal detailing her relationship with both Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett).

Yet despite its reliance of actual events, Chisum is every bit a Hollywood western, complete with drama, action (the final shoot-out is intense), even romance (Sallie falls in love with Billy the Kid, much to her uncle’s dismay). The performances are first-rate, especially Duell’s turn as “The Kid”, who, for a change, is on the right side of the law. In addition to those already mentioned, Christopher George is strong as Dan Nodeen, a bounty hunter with a personal grudge against The Kid, and Andrew Prine is effective as Easterner Alexander McSween, who accepts a job with Murphy only to quit so he can work for Chisum and Turnstall instead.

As for John Wayne, he may not have been the focal point of Chisum (I’d bet money Geoffrey Duell’s Billy the Kid has more screen time), but the legendary actor definitely makes his presence known. His various confrontations with Tucker’s Murphy are among the film’s most memorable scenes.

A thrilling, engaging take on a key moment in American history, Chisum is a western that fans of the genre will definitely enjoy.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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