For those of us who love him, there's something about a John Wayne
movie that kind of makes it immune to criticism. You can fault his
no-frills acting style, the pious patriotism, the oft-uneven supporting
cast, the predictable fight scenes, But even a lesser Wayne film still
has John Wayne, and for his fans, that's nine-tenths of the battle in
determining whether it's a good film.
"Chisum" is not going to convert non-Duke fans. On its own merits it's
a serviceable western with good action sequences, some incredible
vistas of the Mexican countryside (supposed to be Lincoln County, New
Mexico) by cinematographer William H. Clothier, and an interesting if
not always coherent storyline that places Wayne's title character, John
Chisum, as more of a remote icon than active player in the proceedings,
especially in its second half. Much of the film focuses on young
William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), a former gunman better known as Billy
the Kid now trying to live "clean and forward, all the way" with the
help of a fatherly rancher named Tunstall (Patric Knowles, Will Scarlet
to Errol Flynn's Robin Hood some 32 years before).
Geoffrey Deuel didn't go on to much of a career after this, and it's
not hard seeing why. In "Chisum" his shallow characterization exudes no
visible menace even after Bonney, well-provoked though not
well-reasoned, turns against the law. I'm not sure how much of it was
Deuel's fault. The script works against him, setting Bonney up as a
decent, humble guy to the point of boringness, and director Andrew V.
McLaglen only adds to the emasculation by showcasing Deuel's shy smile
and his character's rote romancing of Chisum's niece. One scene freezes
on Bonney holding a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. I don't
think Marlon Brando could have acted his way out of Deuel's bind.
Other actors come off better, especially Forrest Tucker as the chief
heavy, Lawrence Murphy, who showcases an affable menace that makes him
a good foil to Wayne's straightforward Chisum; Glenn Corbett, who plays
drifting gambler Pat Garrett, hard but decent, who joins Chisum and
befriends young Bonney until he turns into The Kid again; and
Christopher George, whose Dan Nodeen is a nasty bounty hunter obsessed
with killing the Kid. One nice thing about this film is seeing these
actors, all best known for TV series work, stretching out beyond their
popular identities of the period. George makes the strongest impression
as the cold-eyed Nodeen.
"You just had to kill him," asks a sheriff when Nodeen brings in the
body of a wanted man.
"No, less trouble that way," Nodeen replies.
Ben Johnson and Richard Jaeckel also have their moments as companions
to Chisum and Murphy respectively, as does Andrew Prine as a lawyer who
switches sides halfway through. There are many other performances, too,
most good and all detracting somewhat from Wayne at the center, though
Chisum does assert himself from time to time.
"Chisum" may be too busy a film that way, with too rambling a focus
even when its on Wayne. There's one scene where Chisum looks after an
old Commanche chief which should have been cut, while others need
trims. But director McLaglen keeps a firm rein on things most of the
time, and the story does move. His mentor was John Ford, but while
McLaglen lacked Ford's nuance and depth, he was better at delivering
action sequences, both in terms of frequency and originality. "Chisum"
gives you plenty of action, none better than the final battle at the
Lincoln general store between Billy and the baddies with Chisum riding
to the rescue.
The first time I saw "Chisum," I was stuck at a sleepaway camp and
hating life in general. Something about seeing John Wayne on a horse
made the world seem right again, even if the film was kind of hokey
with that silly title music and all. Years later, I still relish this
film, in some ways more than I did then, despite its flaws. "Chisum" is
not a showcase for Wayne's greatness, like "The Searchers" or "Rio
Bravo," but it's a nice film to have around for those of us who don't
need him justifying our love every time out.