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Chisum

Chisum(1970)

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Chisum (1970)

The first thing you notice when the opening credits begin is how out of place they seem in 1970. As the camera jumps to different parts of paintings by Western scene artist Russ Vickers, the theme song, sung by a male chorus with spoken word by William Conrad, plays over the soundtrack. "Chisum, John Chisum," they sing while Conrad intones, "Weary, saddle-worn. Can you still keep goin' on?" Placed at the start of a Western in 1955, they'd seem perfectly fitting but in 1970, after a grittier, harder-edged Western had made its way into the cinematic world of the sixties, led by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, they seem like the opening credits from another era entirely. With John Wayne in the lead and Ben Johnson in tow as his best friend, Chisum opens as majestically (John Wayne silhouetted on a hill next to a lone tree) as any classic Western but it takes only a moment for the dated opening credits to stop feeling dated and feel exactly right. Chisum is a loose retelling of history, about the real life John Chisum, played by Wayne, a cattle farmer who took on big business and, while not coming out the victor he hoped, emerged a hero to the little man and a legend in the west. You don't start a movie like that with gritty, new-fangled credits. You start it out with a song and a painting and more than a little reverence for and deference to the past.

Chisum begins with John Chisum (John Wayne) and his ranch hand James Pepper (Ben Johnson) heading to town to greet Chisum's niece, Sallie (Pamela McMyler), only to backtrack when they discover some of Chisum's horses have been rustled by a group of bandits paid off by the business leader of the town, Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker). Along the way they pass by Chisum's friend and neighbor, Henry Tunstall (Patrick Knowles) whose cattle hand, William Bonny (Geoffrey Deuel), offers to help. Anyone who knows their Wild West history knows the name William Bonny and he is, in fact, the infamous Billy the Kid. His skill with a gun helps Chisum easily defeat the bandits but when Chisum learns of his past, after he's invited him to meet his niece, things get awkward. Chisum won't rescind the invitation but wants Bonny to keep his distance. Later, when the conflict between Chisum and Murphy turns into the Lincoln County War, Bonny fights for Chisum and the two form an uneasy alliance.

Chisum was based on a short story by the screenwriter Andrew Fenady and while taking some mild liberties with the history, including some basic name changes and timeline shifts, does a fairly good job of conveying the spirit of the dispute between Chisum and the big business interests that moved into New Mexico after Chisum and other ranchers had already set up shop with a thriving cattle trade. And it doesn't shy away from the fact that Chisum and Bonny were allies. Since that is what actually happened, and Bonny's later death at the hands of Pat Garrett, also a character in the movie, is of no consequence to this story, Billy the Kid is simply portrayed, for the most part, as one of the good guys because, at that moment in history, in this particular instance, he was.

Chisum was directed by Andrew McLaglen, son of the actor Victor McLaglen, and someone who was well-acquainted with John Wayne. He was assistant director on John Ford's The Quiet Man and his first two films as director were both financed by John Wayne's Batjac Productions. He later directed John Wayne several times, in Chisum, of course, as well as McLintock!, Hellfighters , The Undefeated, and Cahill U.S. Marshal.

John Wayne was entering the last stage of his career with Chisum. He would only make movies for another six years before passing away in 1979 and while the movies he made in those six years, from this one to The Shootist, aren't thought of as highly as many of his earlier classics, as an actor, he was never more confident or assured in front of the camera. In all honesty, the last decade of John Wayne's career is the decade of his finest work. Chisum may not rank on the same level as a John Ford classic like The Searchers or Stagecoach but it's just as entertaining and exciting and stands alone in 1970 as one of the last old fashioned westerns Hollywood made.

By Greg Ferrara

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