Chisum: John Wayne stars as a powerful frontier patriarch who knows his time’s at an end

Chisum(1970), starring John Wayne in the title role and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, is a typical ‘John Wayne’ Western from the final phase of Wayne’s career, and like its legendary star, the film tries to reconcile the traditional with the modern.

Weary, saddle-worn. Can you still keep goin’ on?

As William Conrad’s deep baritone intones this question on the soundtrack (his words propelled by an all-male chorus singing “Chisum, John Chisum“) the colorful paintings by Western scene artist Russ Vickers transforms into moving images of the magnificent profile of John Wayne astride a horse. This one moment encapsulates the gist of this film: the above question is not posed at John Simpson Chisum: legendary, real-life, Lincoln County cattle baron who is supposedly extolled in the title song; but to the legendary movie star John ‘Duke’ Wayne: who plays a highly fictionalized version of the eponymous cattle baron, and who’s the real legend extolled throughout the 111 minutes running time of this film. The year was 1970 and John Wayne was riding high, after being awarded his only Oscar; winning the prestigious honor for his triumphant performance in the 1969 film adaptation of the best-selling novel “True Grit”. His first movie following his Oscar win was “Chisum”, a dramatic and exciting Western  based on the Lincoln County Cattle War of 1878 in New Mexico in the days before the territory gained statehood. Duke plays John Chisum, who was one of the founders of Lincoln County but his power was threatened when businessman Lawrence Murphy began encroaching on his business interests. Ironically,  the trouble started, not over cattle, but over the control of dry goods. Murphy and his partner James Dolan had a government contract that allowed them a virtual monopoly on selling goods and beef in the area. When a rival general store opened, Chisum backed it and set in motion the events that led to the five-day war; which escalated after Chisum found out that Murphy had been responsible for the theft of some of his cattle. These events are played out in this John Wayne Western in a more fictionalized form, and they include some larger-than-life characters including Billy the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel) and Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett), who were on friendly terms when they worked for Chisum. Years later, Garrett would be the lawman who hunted down and killed the Kid. Although there is a good deal of artistic license taken in terms of historical events, screenwriter Andrew J. Fenady has most of the basic facts straight, except, the real John Chisum was actually not at all like the rough-and-tumble cowboy played by Wayne in this film. From everything that I have read, the real John Chisum was much more the dapper businessman, who left the fighting and gun play to his employees. Ah! but who would go to the cinemas to watch that John Wayne?. Though in theory, Duke had played a lot of real life characters, like Davy Crockett, General Sherman, Frank “Spig” Wead, Genghis Khan, Townsend Harris etc., let’s be frank, it was more the case of them playing John Wayne than the other way around. John Wayne is at his best when he plays ‘John Wayne’. Anyway, you don’t get to be the biggest American movie-star of all-times by playing other people. By 1970, after being in the film business for more than 40 years, Duke was still at the top of his game, but the times were changing, and Duke knew it. “Chisum” perfectly encapsulates this dichotomy by presenting Duke as both a powerful ‘megastar’ of his realm, as well as, as a man who’s slowly becoming obsolete in a new world; being challenged and even overtaken by the upstarts and unscrupulous kind who stop at nothing to achieve their objectives, while Duke(‘s characters) still steadfastly stick to a moral code. By the end of 1960s, the “Western” film genre was dying, at least the kind of classical American Westerns that made a star out of Duke was being made only by John Wayne. But they were being out-grossed by revisionist Westerns like “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” and “The Wild Bunch”. That’s why the success of “True Grit” was so important; not just the critical success and Duke’s Oscar, but the commercial success: it became Duke’s biggest box office success till then and made sure that the ‘John Wayne’ Western could survive (for some more time) in the “New-Hollywood” marketplace, even though it was obvious that its days were numbered. It’s this contradiction that “Chisum” presents so well and that’s why its a really good follow-up to “True Grit”.

“Chisum” has the greatest opening credits scene for any star-vehicle; it has one of the most interesting credit sequence for any Western (or any movie period), but as far as building up a star goes it is unbeatable: a “mini movie” consisting only of static paintings by Russ Vickers on which the camera zooms and pans, which is intended to tell the past history of the character of John Chisum: how he built his cattle empire to become the man of wealth and reputation we see in the film, but which in reality sums up the screen history of John Wayne. The paintings are set to stirring lyrics by Andrew J. Fenady, music of Dominic Frontiere with the vocals of Merle Haggard and the voiceover by William Conrad. “Ballad of John Chisum” as it is referred to in the film’s credits, should have been titled “Ballad of John Wayne”- describing a a guy who rode from Texas toward the Pecos with his cattle to find out where he belonged.

“They say you can’t make it

Will you hark to what they’ve said?

or will you move your beeves

from Texas across the River Red?”

As William Conrad’s majestic voice roars in the background. we get images of a cattle drive filled with stampedes, hazardous river crossings, rain, thunder and lightning, and the lead cowboy fending off Indian attacks; this may very well be what John Chisum had to go through, but the images conjures up memories of Duke’s immortal Red River(1948) and even The Big Trail(1931), which was Duke’s first stab at bigtime stardom that was unsuccessful but definitely did set the tone of the rest of his career to follow. Duke’s John Chisum could be considered a spiritual successor to Tom Dunson; a little older, benign, caring and democratic.

“Well you’ve crossed beyond the Brazos,

fought Comanches, rain and sand,

you brought your cattle westward

But is this your Promised Land?

You made it to the Pecos,

carved your empire beneath the sun

You won a hundred battles,

But the fight keep going on

Can you still keep going on?”

At this point, the painted image of that man on horseback, standing proudly atop a hill and looking down on his New Mexico estate, morphs into the ‘film’ image of John Wayne captured in a lengthy zoom-in. You cannot get a better marriage of star and character; the man and his screen image. A rousing, “romantic”, mass-appealing introduction sequence intended to bring the die-hard fans of the superstar to their feet as their idol transforms from an image into “flesh and blood” on screen. But the greatness of the sequence is that beyond the mythmaking of its legendary star, it brings back the romanticism of the “Western” film genre. It was getting lost bit by bit as revisionism kept on chipping away its romantic edges; even beyond the genre, the whole history of American old-west was being reassessed at this point of time; so the overt display of traditional elements that constituted the old-west fantasy: cattle drives, battle with “injuns” etc. lends an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a (cinematic) landscape that was lost forever. The whole sequence could very well have been something playing inside John Wayne’s mind: even as he sits “Tall in the saddle” (by the way another famous early John Wayne title) of superstardom he is looking back on his career. He is playing the “King of Pecos” in the film (translated as “King of Hollywood”); he doesn’t have anymore peaks to conquer, and he’s only worried about people who are coming from behind him, catching up to him, and unseating him from his saddle. And just as in the film- where a Lawrence Murphy comes out to challenge his authority- in real life, it was a tall, blonde T.V. Actor turned movie star named Clint Eastwood who was posing a challenge to Duke. Clint was blazing a new trail, first in Europe and then in U.S., as a new kind of “unabashedly amoral” Western anti-hero. In time, Clint would almost match up to Duke in durability as a star, if not in influence. John Wayne hated Television; despite the fact that some of his close friends like James Stewart and Henry Fonda had great successes on T.V., Duke always considered himself to be a big-screen star. He hated immorality in his characters; he never shot anybody in the back, and he always fought for a great cause that benefitted the entire American society rather than for self, so his disapproval of the kind of characters and films that Clint Eastwood was doing is understandable. But at the time when he was making Chisum, he was still the “biggest dog” in Hollywood and its perfectly reflected in this opening sequence. If the film had ended right were the title sequence ends, then this would have been one of the greatest “John Wayne” Westerns ever made. But the film still has 105 minutes to go, and after such a spectacular beginning it can only go downhill, which it does, but not to such an extend that it becomes totally disappointing; because no ‘John Wayne’ Western is ever totally disappointing. Duke knew more than anybody else what the audiences expected from his films, and he never failed to deliver it to them, even if it means making the same film again and gain (or playing the same role again and again). This always kept his core fan base intact, but they remained finite, and never grew as in the case of stars like Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, who went on enlarging their audience at every stage of their career.

The nostalgia of the credit sequence extends to the film’s post-credit sequences as well: Duke’s old sparring partner, Ben Johnson, rides into the scene. Johnson made his debut opposite Duke in John Ford’s great “Cavalry” Western, She wore a yellow Ribbon(1949), in which both of them were constantly bickering comrades; we get an extension of that relationship here as well with Johnson playing Chisum’s old friend James Pepper:

Pepper: “Thinking about the beginning?”

Chisum. “And before”

Pepper: “Everything’s different now,”

Chisum(gesturing to some grazing deer): “Not everything”

Pepper: “Most everything,”

Chisum: “Well, things usually change for the better,”

As already mentioned, “Chisum” was made in the aftermath of revisionist American Westerns of the late 60s as well as Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy that made Clint Eastwood a star and redefined the Western genre. So the ‘meta’ nature of the above conversation is very obvious. Johnson might be saying that the “Westerns” have changed, and Duke corrects him by saying that he’s still at the top of the game, so some of the “old-stuff” still continues, but he’s not blind to the changes happening around him and he knows that resistance is futile; things are going to change eventually, maybe not for his betterment, but perhaps for the betterment of cinema as a whole.

“Chisum” is directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who directed Duke for the first time in McLintock!(1963), and that rambunctious Western kick-started the final phase in Duke’s career, where he mostly played the roles of powerful “patriarchs of West” with strong comic undertones; Chisum follows the same formula with Wayne portraying the frontier patriarch with conviction, although his face looks puffy – (no) thanks to some plastic surgery he undertook before the film – and his belt penetrates his girth -(no) thanks to the extreme weight gain for “True Grit” as well as his lifestyle. Also, true to the spirit of a ‘John Wayne’ Western’, a number of “John Wayne stock company” regulars were in the film, including Ben Johnson, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Cabot and, from El Dorado(1967), Christopher George. Apart from the usual items packed into the film- Gunfights, fistfights, brawls, broad humor, galloping horses and Duke finally overpowering the villain in a mano a mano duel, the real pleasure of a ‘John Wayne’ Western is watching Duke interacting with these “old chums” on screen. The best casting in the film is that of Forrest Tucker as Chisum’s arch-nemesis, Lawrence Murphy; It takes an actor with considerable screen presence to stand up to John Wayne and seem credible, and Tucker fits the bill perfectly. He plays it very smooth, subtle and dignified as opposed to the loud, snarling villains who usually populate Duke’s films, and hence make maximum impact. He’s a businessman who buys everything in Lincoln county including the law and thus attempts to outsmart Duke’s Chisum, who’s above all a man who respects the law. Their antagonism starts out as personal insults but as Murphy buys off the local sheriff, William Brady (Bruce Cabot) and orchestrates the killing of competitor (and Chisum’s close friend) Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles), events escalate rapidly. William Bonney AKA Billy the Kid, who’s a protégée of Tunstall, takes matters into his own hands and murders Sheriff Brady in revenge for the killing of Tunstall. Tensions rise and the film climaxes with the historic five-day Lincoln county war that starts as a massive shoot-out in a general store and finishes up with Chisum personally leading a stampede of cattle down the main street and engaging in a knock-down fist fight to the death with Murphy. The last part of the climax was not part of real history, that’s a rousing finish that’s necessary for every John Wayne Western.

The climax, in which a herd of cattle stampedes through the barricade meant to keep Chisum out and sends Murphy’s men running for their lives while Chisum, Pepper, Pat Garrett and the other rescuers ride in on their horses, firing rifles and pistols at Murphy’s hired guns is spectacular and provides a whole lot of pleasures; first, it gives a large-scale, pre-CGI action sequence with live animals and people, which one doesn’t get to see anymore; second, even then, these kind of sequences were becoming extinct from Westerns, as the films concentrated more on character psychology than delivering the traditional Western elements; third, it’s a great book-end to this film which began with a cattle drive represented by still images, but now we get a live one; and finally, a nice book-end for Duke’s career itself which started with “The Big Trail”, then had a turning point with “Red River” and now finally this film, which all deal with cattle-drives one way or the other. There are some half-hearted attempts at modernizing the Western, as Director McLaglen tries to mix up the visual style of the picture by combining John Ford style classical filmmaking with Sergio Leone style extreme close-ups and Zooms, which i am afraid does not gel well together, even with the legendary cinematographer William Clothier behind the camera. But one of these mix and match of shots definitely works: There’s a great shot that follows the final stampede in which Chisum, scanning the scene in search of Murphy, rides toward the camera and into a close-up that recalls the zoom in Stagecoach that introduces Wayne’s “Ringo Kid”. But the fistfight that follows – between Chisum and Murphy- is rather unintentionally funny, because Duke’s stunt double doesn’t look anything like Duke, so when the double gets hit and take a fall and then Duke stands up, it ends up like those Marx Brothers comic routines from “Duck Soup”. Also, the film is rather too violent for a ‘John Wayne’ Western – the climactic fight ending with Chisum and Murphy taking a fall from a second-story balcony that leaves Murphy impaled by the tip of a trophy steer horn- perhaps an attempt to match up to the ultra-violent Westerns of the time; a clear sign that time’s are indeed changing for even John Wayne.

“Chisum” enjoyed strong reviews and was a major hit for Warner Brothers, though it wasn’t as big a hit as “True Grit”, it still made close to $10 million on an approximately $4 million budget. John Wayne was voted the second biggest box office star of the 1970, second only to Paul Newman- who was only a decade old as a star and was 18 years younger than Duke; truly a great achievement for Duke who was 63 years old and into his 4th decade as a star. Among the film’s fans was President Richard Nixon who said that, while he didn’t see many movies, he enjoyed “Chisum” very much and thought that Wayne was a “fine actor”. He went on to give an extended “review” of the film and said that it represented how law and order is the backbone of American democracy and nowhere is that depicted better than in the Western film. Truly, law & order, religion and family, which were the cornerstones of John Ford Westerns were also the main themes of John Wayne Westerns too. This is perfectly summed up in the final conversation between Pepper and Chisum that ends the film, as Chisum takes leave of his family to once again go survey his “kingdom”:

James Pepper: You know, there’s an old saying, Miss Sally. There’s no law west of Dodge and no God west of the Pecos. Right, Mr. Chisum?

John Simpson Chisum: Wrong, Mr. Pepper. Because no matter where people go, sooner or later there’s the law. And sooner or later they find God’s already been there.

And as the camera zooms out – in a reverse of the opening shot that introduced Duke as Chisum – from the profile of Chisum sitting on his horse and surveying his kingdom, the film dissolves back into still paintings, with “Ballad of Chisum” playing on the soundtrack. The film affirmatively answers the question posed at the beginning of the film; it proves that Chisum and Duke can keep going on for the time being, but as history proved, not for long. John Chisum would be dead within 6 years of the Lincoln county war. As for Duke, within 3 years of making this film, he would be forced to switch gears and follow in the footsteps of his (much younger) arch-rival Clint Eastwood by doing urban-cop movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan”. Also, within 6 years, he will finish his legendary film career with “The Shootist” and in 9 years he would leave this world altogether; leaving behind an extraordinary cinematic legacy that would never be topped by any other movie-star, perhaps, not even by Clint Eastwood.


2 thoughts on “Chisum: John Wayne stars as a powerful frontier patriarch who knows his time’s at an end

  1. Always enjoyed Big Jake and pieces of The Undefeated. Andrew V knew how to play to Wayne’s strengths and image but as a director he was a solid journeyman (not meant as a pejorative remark). But wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see Wayne work with some other interesting directors in his latter years (apart from the gifted Don Siegel). Think of Robert Aldrich, Sam Pechinpah, Stuart Rosenberg, and others.


    1. Yes you’re right Paul. But Wayne had become such an overpowering persona that it would have been impossible for individualistic directors to direct him. Anyway the west of John Wayne is very different from Peckinpah’s West. I believe Peter Bogadanovich was attempting to make a western with Wayne Stewart and Fonda, but it didn’t work out. It was later made into the TV series Lonesome Dove. That would have been a very interesting film with Wayne


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