7 August 2005 | slokes
Wayne Rides Again
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.