John Wayne's movies became more familiar, more safe. You know what though? There's a comfort in familiarity, and there's some genuinely good movies in the bunch. Today's review is one of those efforts, telling one of the more famous stories of the wild west that ranks up there with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral or the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That story? The Lincoln County War. That movie? 1970's Chisum.
It's 1878 in the New Mexico territory, and aging rancher John Chisum (Wayne) has carved an immense cattle ranch out of the wilderness, made it all into something to behold. He's preparing for his niece, Sallie (Pamela McMyler), to come and visit the ranch, but there's some serious issues to be dealt with. An equally powerful man with some serious financial backing, Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker), has moved into Lincoln County and is looking to take over. Take over EVERYTHING. First up on his list? Buying the sheriff, the bank, and scooping up all the land he can and drive Chisum out as quick as he can. Chisum is well-rooted though, and nothing is going to come easy for the despicably vicious, greedy Murphy. There's a wild card in the entire situation though, a young, fiery gunfighter with a fast-growing reputation and a fast draw with his pistol, William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), better known as Billy the Kid.
I've loved John Wayne and his movies since I was a little kid. Hopefully, I always will! I hadn't seen this 1970 western from director Andrew McLaglen in years until a recent showing on Turner Classic Movies gave me the opportunity to revisit it. Am I glad I did! It is different, telling the mostly true story of the Lincoln County War with some artistic license thrown in here and there. A lot of familiar faces, filming locations in Durango, Mexico where other Wayne ventures (The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated, The Train Robbers) were filmed, a memorable score from Dominic Frontiere, and cinematographer William Clothier bringing the Mexican locations to life, yeah, it IS familiar. That's not a bad thing. I loved catching up with the movie and liked it much more than I remember. There's just enough different here to keep things interesting. And let's face it, the story and recognizable historical characters are a great backdrop for that mostly true story.
Okay, one of the most famous stories of the wild west. What do we need? How about a movie star capable of leading the way? In 1970, Wayne was still at the top of his game. He had the tough guy hero part down to an art with decades of practice. That is most definitely a compliment. Wayne was always at home in the western, and that's the case here. His Chisum -- based on the real-life John Chisum -- becomes a figurehead of the west. Years before, Chisum moved west into New Mexico and carved out a cattle ranch out of the land. Now, he's learning to slowly, begrudgingly changing with the times to survive. A testament to Wayne here is that he's not on-screen a ton. Yes, he's the star, but the Hollywood legend is content to let other members of a solid ensemble step into the limelight. When he is in the limelight? It's Duke at his tough as nails best, playing straight man to a bunch of antics while also stealing the camera, especially in a late confrontation with Tucker's Murphy. Nothing flashy, just a western professional.
Part of the fun here is the familiar names and characters popping up. The Billy the Kid story has been told in the Young Guns movies, The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Outlaw and many more I'm probably forgetting. I liked the spin Deuel puts on young William Bonney, a brash kid trying to put a checkered past behind him. He may be too good with a gun to let it happen though. Deuel's scenes with Glenn Corbett's Pat Garrett are a highlight, especially knowing where these two men end up. Also look for peaceful, second-chance rancher John Tunstall (Patric Knowles), Alex McSween (Andrew Prine, with his wife Lynda Day George), corrupt Sheriff Brady (Bruce Cabot), and more than a few familiar faces in the background.
The cast is one of Chisum's best features. Tucker is a slimy, nasty, slithery villain, with both Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel as his brutal enforcers. Another Just Hit Play favorite, Ben Johnson is Pepper, Wayne's right-hand man, a mumbling cowboy who'd rather solve a problem with his gun than his words, a part similar to the one he played in both The Undefeated and The Train Robbers. You ready though for some other names? Take a deep breath with me. Also look for John Agar, Robert Donner, Ray Teal, Hank Worden, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Edward Faulkner, Christopher Mitchum and plenty of faces from the John Wayne stock company. Quite the cast. QUITE a group of tough guys, a McLaglen specialty.
About as good as a traditional western can get. There's good guys, dastardly bad guys, shootouts to be had, and set against the backdrop against one of the wild west's most famous/infamous incidents ever. Something really hit me with this most recent watch, and I came away more impressed than I'd been with previous viewings. Hopefully, you'll like it just as much!
Chisum (1970): *** 1/2 /****