Chisum (1970)

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen - Cast: John Wayne, Forrest Tucker, Ben Johnson, Geoffrey Deuel, Christopher George, Pamela McMyler, Bruce Cabot, Glenn Corbett, Richard Jaeckel

A minor achievement in the Duke's career, but it became a hot item after Richard Nixon had mentioned it in a speech. Nixon saw it as a morality tale about lawlessness versus justice in the early days of the American West ("before New Mexico was a State") and called it an above average achievement. In other words: he didn't think it was closely related to the political controversies of the day - Vietnam to be more specific - nor did he call it one of his favorite movies (1). But in liberal circles his (and Duke's) reputation was so bad that the smallest spark inevitably created a blaze.

Today, Chisum still has a bad name. It's usually criticized for corrupting history and being right-wing. The Time Out Film Guide calls it “a western equivalent of John Wayne’s revisionist Vietnam movie The Green Berets, articulating his right-wing ethos”. In reality, it got most historic facts right (at least more or less) and it seems odd to label a movie in which a businessman is the villain as right-wing. Its biggest mistake probably is that it tells a formulaic western story in the context of a historic conflict, the Lincoln County War. John Wayne is the man from the title, Chisum, the cattle baron whose conflict with monopolistic businessman Murphy lies at the base of the range war which would eventually made a star out of William H. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid.

Chisum is portrayed as the traditional westerner, a man who adheres to the land and stands up for the small farmers and the shopkeepers from Lincoln, who are ousted out by the power hungry capitalist. Of course this is a bit naïve, the Lincoln County war was not a conflict between a good cattle baron and a bad capitalist. Chisum was a businessman himself and his approach to the land was expansionist and monopolistic as well.

What is most astonishing, is that with its glorification of the old pioneer spirit and the tradition of the Old West, the message of the movie is remarkably close to the ideas expressed in some of Peckinpah’s westerns of the period such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which deals with the same conflict, but is set in its aftermath). Chisum represents the same code of honour of the Old West, which was, in both Wayne’s and Peckinpah’s eyes, superior to the ruthless ideology of advancing capitalism. But Wayne’s sympathy lies with those who respect the law, Peckinpah’s sympathy with the outlaws. Both films are romantic, but while Peckinpah romanticizes outlawry and sees the law as a repressive, to Wayne jurisdiction is a protective element, without it, we would end up in a wilderness in which the weaker would inevitably be devoured by the stronger. The different views are expressed by Pat Garret in the movie, in a conversation with Chisum's niece, who has an eye on William Bonney: "Billy wants revenge, Mr. Chisum wants justice." When people have no recourse to the law, personal revenge is all what's left.

As a traditional western, Chisum is only partially successful. William Clothier's cinematograpy is magnificent and there's more than enough action for two movies, but there are also a couple of slow stretches and moments of awkward dialogue. I liked some of the supporting actors, notably Christopher George(who was also in El Dorado) as a grim bounty hunter who’s after the damn Kid who crippled him.


(1) Nixon called it "a good movie, but (...) basically just another western, better than average movies, better than average westerns." For Nixon's comments, see Chisum, Wiki Page (under Box Office and Reception)


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