Chisum (Warner Bros, 1970)
How a cattle baron won the Lincoln County War
In 1965 John Wayne was recovering from quite drastic cancer surgery. The Western-loving public was holding its breath. Would he come back as a Western star? Of course he would! With the strength and guts and work ethic he had, he’d be back in the saddle alright. The Sons of Katie Elder was the first in a whole series of big, commercial, well-constructed movies that he made down in his beloved Durango, Mexico, 1965 - 73. They were big, bold, and self-assured.
His then wife Pilar was dismissive of them:
Looking back, I can barely tell those Durango films from one another. They had a sameness of story, plot and location which seemed like a disservice to Duke’s fans. Different casts are the only thing which made them stand apart.
But in fact she was quite wrong. It was the opposite: they had very different stories but similar casts. Wayne gathered his stock company about him and used them in successive movies - Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, Paul Fix, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Cabot, Hank Worden – the usual suspects. And he used favorites for the crew too. His son Michael was producer, they used Carl Anderson as art director, William Clothier and Lucien Ballard as cinematographers, Burt Kennedy or Andrew V McLaglen to direct. And they did a solid job; these were professionals. The films did well at the box-office; people liked them, and there was still a market for the ‘mainstream’ Western. And the series of pictures fixed Wayne in the mind as a larger-than-life Western star. These were in many ways the golden years of the John Wayne Western, and though they lasted well into the 1970s, they were untroubled by revisionism or self-doubt.
Finally Wayne got round to a Billy the Kid tale. Of course he was way too old by now to be Bonney, or even Garrett. The writer, star and producer came up with the ideal candidate for him to play: aging but still rich and powerful rancher John Chisum. Duke was just right for the benevolent despot role.
Unfortunately, the real cattleman Chisum took almost no part in the Lincoln County War and was away in the East for most of it. Still, we can’t let a minor detail like historical truth get in the way of a Western movie, can we? In Chisum, he pretty well wins the war single-handed.
The real John Simpson Chisum was born in Tennessee in 1824 and his family moved to East Texas when he was thirteen. As a young man he worked as a building contractor and he also ran twice for the office of county clerk in Lamar County, and won the second time. He went into the cattle business in 1854, in partnership with an eastern financier, Stephen Fowler. They grazed stock in the Fort Worth area, and prospered, until the Civil War. During the war he was a supplier of beef for the Confederacy. The period following the collapse of the Confederacy was one of rock-bottom beef prices, Indian raids, drought and lack of hands. Chisum, now in his forties, turned his face West.
With his brother Pitzer, John Chisum moved into the land along the Pecos River and made his headquarters thirty-odd miles downriver from Fort Sumner, at Bosque Grande. He sold beef to the Indian reservations, to local ranchers and to Army posts. He bought no land but he controlled the water and gradually the open range along the river became accepted as his. This grew and grew and at its greatest extent was bigger than some eastern states and covered up to a fifth of New Mexico territory. He ran up to a hundred thousand head. He had a small army of cowhands and his long rail brand and ‘jinglebob’ ear-notching were known all over the Southwest.
In 1875 he moved his base to near Roswell. He built the Square House round a courtyard and later the more substantial Long House. The dining room sat 26 to dinner.
Here came the great and the good of New Mexico, and sometimes the not-so-good too. Chisum never married but his niece Sallie (1858 – 1934) often acted as hostess. Obviously she would have to be young and pretty and have a romance with Billy the Kid in the movie.
Chisum himself seems to have lived a simple and spartan life. His skin baked brown on the range and he wore scuffy boots with patched pants tucked in them. His face was thin with a long jaw and prominent nose. His hair was dark brown and he had a bushy mustache. He was not an unhandsome man. Despite the statue erected to him later, he did not carry a gun, usually rode a mule and was only indifferently good with a rope. He left that kind of thing to his cowboys.
Chisum broadly sympathized with the Tunstall-McSween faction but did little to aid them. Billy the Kid claimed that Chisum had hired him to fight against ‘the House’, and demanded $500 payment, but the cattleman heatedly denied it and refused. Billy said he would steal $500 worth of Chisum cattle. There was one snag with this idea: by this time John Chisum didn’t own any cattle; only his brother did.
John Chisum was not a skilled politician and up in the Territorial capital the corrupt Santa Fe Ring hated him for his power, his independence and his backing of the ‘wrong’ side in the county war. Trumped-up lawsuits charged him with fraud and he was actually imprisoned in Las Vegas. In jail he wrote a full vindication of his actions and this document survives. In it Chisum comes across as a straightforward if over-trusting man.
After his release he sold most of his stock to a big St Louis firm, Hunter & Evans. It was in fact a shrewd commercial decision: the days of big open-range ranching were on the wane.
In 1883 a tumor appeared on his jaw which grew to the size of a baseball. In agony he went to Kansas City where surgeons removed it and pronounced him cured but on the way back, at Las Vegas, it reappeared with extraordinary rapidity. He returned to Kansas City but it was now too late. They gave him palliative care but it hardly helped. In desperation he went to take the waters at the mineral baths of Eureka Springs, Arkansas but he died there in December 1884, aged sixty.
This was the real John Chisum.
He appeared as a character a few times on the big-screen and TV. In 1953 Roy Roberts played him (just a cameo, but it's a good little performance) in the Rod Cameron B-Western San Antone. In 1957 poor old Hank Worden was 'Marshal John Chisum' in the trashy Forty Guns, but this Chisum bears no relation to the real one. Forty Guns star Barry Sullivan was rancher Chisum in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and that film’s Garrett, James Coburn, played Chisum in Young Guns II.
But of course the most famous screen Chisum was John Wayne, playing the cattleman as a swashbuckling gunman, in the movie of the same name in 1970.
Shot in the fall of 1969 in Panavision and Technicolor down round Durango by the great William Clothier, Chisum was a Batjac picture first made for Fox, but Fox sold it to Warners, produced by Wayne’s son Michael, and co-produced by the writer, Andrew J Fenady. Fenady had done a few feature Westerns but was mostly a TV guy (he was producer and sometime writer on Branded and The Rebel). Like most writers of Billy the Kid movies, Fenady had no scruples about altering history quite radically, and Chisum is historical bunkum. That’s OK.
The picture opens with the mighty cattle baron sitting his horse and surveying his vast empire. There are some quite nice paintings under the credits and titles. Unfortunately, there’s also a perfectly ghastly ballad, Chisum, John Chisum! He just keeps going on. Clearly this was more a reference to Wayne than to Chisum. Well, we are used to droning ballads opening Westerns. The trouble with this one, though, words by Fenady, is not only that it is punctuated by dreadful spoken doggerel voiced by William Conrad, but that it’s used as the basis for the score, so the whole soundtrack, credited to Dominic Frontiere, is variations on the ballad Chisum, John Chisum!, which wouldn’t be too bad if only the ballad hadn’t been so maddeningly trite in the first place. We do get heartily sick of it by the end.
Merle Haggard sings bits now and then, especially when Billy is romancing Sallie; Merle deserved better.
Another basic weakness is that the picture was directed by Wayne protégé AV McLaglen, and with the best will in the world, all you can say about him is that on a good day he reached the heights of the mediocre. Still, I suppose this film was one of his better efforts, and Wayne probably had quite a hand in things too. In any case, it rattles along well enough, I guess, though at 151 minutes it was probably too long.
I do actually quite like Chisum, in its cheesy way.
Chisum’s foreman and right-hand sidekick Pepper is Ben Johnson, so that’s good. He has some actor’s ‘business’ of mumbling all through the movie and when Chisum barks at him, “What?” he replies, “Nothing.” Actually, Wayne first wanted Johnson for the role of Pat Garrett, until Fenady reminded him that Garrett was 28 at the time.
Naturally, in Lincoln the out-and-out bad guys are LG Murphy and his henchmen, and the goodies are rancher John H Tunstall (here called J Henry Tunstall because they didn’t want two Johns) and Alexander McSween. We know that in reality there was little to choose between these warring factions; both were pretty ruthless and both were out to exercise a monopoly, preferably getting it by eliminating the other side. But in all Billy the Kid movies Murphy & Co are the villains and saintly rancher Tunstall and his folk are the good guys. Chisum follows this pattern.
And of course Tunstall, as always, is an elderly father-figure to Billy, his guide, philosopher and friend, and a no-gun pacifist. Here he is played by Patric Knowles, 59, born in England (though he doesn’t sound it; he’d lived in the US since the mid-1930s). As was standard by now, he teaches Billy to read using his bible.
LG Murphy is the boss of the House; his heir and successor James Dolan is merely a lackey. “I’ll do the thinking,” Murphy tells Dolan when the upstart dares to suggest something. Good news, though, for arch-villain Murphy is played by the excellent Forrest Tucker, one of Wayne’s drinking buddies, in the umpteenth of his umpteen Westerns, and clearly relishing the villainy. Dolan is relegated to fourteenth-billed Edward Faulkner with only a couple of lines.
By the way, Wikipedia tells us (so it must be true) that "during filming, Robert Mitchum's brother John [who plays Baker in the movie] introduced John Wayne to his patriotic poetry. Seeing that Wayne was greatly moved by the word, Forrest Tucker suggested that the two collaborate to record some of the poetry, which resulted in a Grammy-nominated spoken-word album, America: Why I Love Her." I bet you can’t wait to get hold of a copy of that disc.
At the behest of Murphy, some Mexicans rustle Chisum’s horse herd so that we can have dramatic galloping and gunplay as Chisum gets it back. He’s aided in this by Billy Bonney, though Chisum and Pepper are dubious about the youth, especially when he starts romancin’ Chisum’s niece Sallie. They cast Geoffrey Deuel, on his debut, as Billy. He’s OK, I guess, though looked too old (he was 27) as Billies usually did, and his 70s sideburns and blow-dried hair didn’t help. Sallie is a glam blonde 70s-looking chick (1970s, I mean, not 1870s), played by Pamela McMyler. She is appropriately feisty and strong-willed but can’t help falling for the handsome boy even though she knows “he has killed a dozen men or more”. There is some basis of fact in this, in fact. Bonney did meet Sallie and she recorded it in her diary; she clearly seems to have been attracted to “Willie”, as she called him. However, they only met a couple of times and were not really star-crossed lovers.
As for McSween, he is not the elderly Scottish partner of Tunstall, as in most Billy pictures. This time he and his wife Sue (good to have her figure for once) are a young couple, played by Andrew Prine and Lynda Day, who come out on the same stage as Sallie from Kansas, to work for LG Murphy. But Alex, as he is called, soon realizes that Murphy is a scoundrel so changes sides, managing the store that Chisum and Tunstall open to break the Murphy monopoly and aid the decent homesteaders.
Murphy has the law in Lincoln in his pocket, and Sheriff Brady is as crooked as they get. I wonder how many Westerns have had corrupt sheriffs who do the bidding of rich men who have treed the town? Not a few. Brady is played by another old pal of Duke’s, and ours, Bruce Cabot, so that’s good too. The cast is certainly packed with good names.
Furthermore, Brady has outlaw Jesse Evans on his side, and Evans is played by none other than Richard Jaeckel. Excellent. And good to have the odious Evans figure in a Billy movie for once.
Now we meet Pat Garrett. He’s played by Glenn Corbett, in Tom Selleck-lookalike mode. Glenn had been a son of James Stewart in Shenandoah and would return for Wayne in Big Jake but didn’t do a great number of big-screen Westerns. He’s OK as Pat, although the role is a bit odd in that Garrett becomes a sort of Chisum hired hand and useful extra gun. He helps Chisum’s men foil a rustling raid by Evans and they capture a man (Gregg Palmer).
Chisum sends for friendly Judge Wilson from Mesilla, and, oh joy, it’s Ray Teal. It was, sadly, Ray the Great’s last Western.
We also meet Colonel Nathan Dudley (Glenn Lanagan) at Fort Stanton. This disgraceful officer, incompetent and drunken, is rarely if ever shown in Billy the Kid movies. This colonel is another in Murphy’s pocket. However, he doesn’t take any part in the siege of the McSween house, which may have been a dramatic opportunity missed. Still, you can’t cram it all in. At the fort the soldiers can show disdain for Chisum’s old enemy, the Comanche White Buffalo (Abraham Sofaer) who seems to be wearing his full war gear for some odd reason. The military mistreatment of the chief is so that Chisum can step in on behalf of his old foe, whom he respects, and get cred with us viewers for decency.
The action continues as Billy and Pat escort a wagon train to Santa Fe to stock up the new Chisum store, Jesse Evans and henchmen attack it, Billy is wounded mid-river but is saved by Pat (and nursed by Sallie, obviously, so we get a Billy-in-bed bit like The Outlaw and The Left Handed Gun), Tunstall is callously murdered by Deputies Morton and Baker, Chisum is empowered by the judge to capture the murderers, he does, Billy ambushes the party, biffs Pat and kills the deputies, then charges down the Lincoln street on horseback and guns down Sheriff Brady, and so on. It all happens quick-fire.
Now we meet a new character, unshaven bounty hunter Nodeen (Christopher George), a bad guy if ever there was one. Actually, he can’t have been that beastly because on the set Lynda (Mrs McSween) fell for him and they were married. I’ve noticed how in Westerns characters with names ending in –een are usually villains. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Murphy schemes with the tame Governor Axtell in Santa Fe and gets Nodeen appointed sheriff to replace Brady. I told you history was thrown to the winds in this flick.
Well, I shall not tell you more in detail, just that it all builds to an action climax during the siege of the McSween house (actually, it’s the store) and the now Mrs George gallops bravely off to get help from Chisum to save Billy & Co before the evil Nodeen burns them out. There’s some curious geography going on because she can gallop down to the Chisum place in Roswell (the same ranch used for Big Jake, by the way) and Chisum can gather all his hands and cattle and ride on Lincoln all in a matter of minutes. When I was there, Lincoln to Roswell was 50 or 60 miles. Never mind. Poetic license. Or filmic license anyway. It’s an exciting finale, involving a stampede. Wayne and Tucker have a climactic one-on-one fistfight (or their obvious stunt doubles do) and Murphy ends up on the horns of a dilemma. Billy drifts off to hunt down the now-departed Nodeen. Chisum in his toupee goes back to sitting his horse, the lord of all he surveys. The End. Apart from a reprise of the damn song.
Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, alumnus of Rio Bravo, has a bit part, as does good old Hank Worden. John Agar plays a storekeeper driven out by Murphy; Agar was a bit down on his luck and Wayne was very good to old friends in that way. Pedro Armendariz Jr is there too.
McLaglen said the film was one of his favorites. "I wanted Billy the Kid to just be Billy the Kid, a human being, not a bad little boy. Fenady was sort of a scholar about the Lincoln County Cattle War, which was a conflict over water and cattle-trading, John Chisum actually became a very powerful landowner. It was an American story." Right.
Wayne liked the finished movie too. “This is the most pleasant picture I ever made.”
Richard Nixon liked Chisum, offering up sage philosophy as follows: “I wondered why it is that the western survives year after year after year. A good western will outdraw [unconscious humor, I feel] some of the other subjects. Perhaps one of the reasons, in addition to the excitement, the gun play, and the rest, which perhaps is part of it but they can get that in other kinds of movies but one of the reasons is, perhaps, and this may be a square observation-is that the good guys come out ahead in the westerns; the bad guys lose.” He added, “There was a time when there was no law. But the law eventually came, and the law was important from the standpoint of not only prosecuting the guilty, but also seeing that those who were guilty had a proper trial". Well, quite, Dicky.
The critical reception was modestly favorable. Howard Thompson in The New York Times said, “Forget substance. Settle for color and commotion and you won't feel cheated.” That’s about right, I think. The Pittsburgh Press said “There’s a simplicity in the style of these epics which does away with the need of any real character development.”
The picture grossed $6m, on its $4m budget, so that was a tidy profit for Batjac.
More recent critics have had quite similar views. Brian Garfield said, “It’s juvenile and trite but as sheer action entertainment for the young-minded it’s just fine.” Dennis Schwartz says, “If you could wade through the overlong narrative and the muddled plot to get to the exciting climactic shootout, then you’ll see the Duke you were waiting for–firing away with his pistols blazing and the bad guys killed as easy as squatting flies in a closed barn. It’s a big and splashy Western that makes for mindless entertainment, which is not such a bad thing for an escapist film.”
If you want Chisum as heroic capitalist of the Old West standing up for the little guy, this is the ideal picture for you. If you don’t buy that, watch it anyway. It’s a good example of the big, commercial 70s Wayne Westerns. Formulaic, straight-down-the-line yet full of vim and pzazz, and Wayne is pretty damn indomitable.Take it for what it is and it’ll do nicely.