Apr 042012

Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Users: [ratings]
Warner Brothers, 1970, 111 minutes
Cast: John Wayne, Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Ben Johnson, Glenn Corbett, Andrew Prine, Bruce Cabot, Patric Knowles, Richard Jaeckel, Linda Day, Geoffrey Deuel and Pamela McMyler
Screenwriter: Andrew J. Fenady
Producer: Andrew J. Fenady
Executive Producer: Michael Wayne
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

Historical Background

Born William Henry McCarty on November 23, 1859 to Irish immigrants in New York City, the boy who would become Billy the Kid was living in Silver City, New Mexico when his mother died of tuberculosis in September 1874. Left unsupervised by his step-father, who was busy searching for gold, McCarty drifted into petty crime. His life changed when he shot a local bully during a bar fight at Fort Grant in Arizona in 1877. Accused of murder, McCarty changed his last name to Bonney, and kept moving until he found himself in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he became friends with cowboys who worked for an English rancher named John Tunstall. Tunstall and his partner Alex McSween, supported by powerful rancher John Chisum, had challenged the House, a clique of businessmen led by James Dolan, that dominated Lincoln County. Realizing that Dolan would not meekly surrender his control of the county, Tunstall had hired several cowboys for their skill with a gun, but he had underestimated Dolan’s willingness to use violence to crush any competition. When legal pressure failed to frighten Tunstall into leaving Lincoln, he was killed by members of a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan on February 18, 1878.

Both Tunstall’s supporters, led by McSween, and Dolan’s faction claimed legal authority, and open warfare broke out. Believing that Dolan controlled the law in the county, the Justice of the Peace swore out a warrant against all of the members of the sheriff’s posse, and made Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, a special constable to enforce the warrants. Brewer formed his own posse, using Tunstall’s cowboys, as the core, and they called themselves the Regulators. The death toll mounted on both sides until McSween died after a five-day-long battle in Lincoln Town in mid-July, which ended the Lincoln County War. Several of the Regulators decided to leave Lincoln County in search of a peaceful life, but Bonney was determined to stay. The drunken celebration that followed a reconciliation with Dolan and his supporters resulted in the murder of Huston Chapman, Sue McSween’s lawyer. Determined to restore order to Lincoln County, Governor Lew Wallace offered Bonney amnesty in exchange for his testimony against the men who had killed Chapman. Unfortunately, the prosecuting attorney was an ally of Dolan, so Bonney was convicted, although permitted to escape by a sympathetic sheriff. Bonney settled at Fort Sumner, located just outside of Lincoln County, where he joined a group of rustlers. Angered by the depredations of the outlaws, the leading men of the region arranged for the election of a pro-active sheriff, Pat Garrett, who captured Bonney and several others on December 20, 1880. Sentenced to be hung, a desperate Bonney escaped from the Lincoln jail on April 28, 1881, killing two deputies. Although he had become a notorious outlaw, Bonney returned to Fort Sumner, hiding with friends until Garrett found him during a chance encounter and killed him on July 14, 1881. Billy the Kid was only twenty-one-years-old.

Plot Summary

The vast ranch owned by John Chisum (John Wayne) dominates Lincoln County, therefore he controls the main water source for all of the ranches in the county. Unknown to him, Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker), a powerful businessman, is conspiring with rustlers to weaken Chisum, his main rival. Chisum cooperates closely with John Tunstall (Patric Knowles), whose top cowboy is William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), already known as Billy the Kid and famous for killing a man in Silver City. Given Bonney’s history with the law, Chisum is far from pleased that his recently arrived niece Sallie (Pamela McMyler) has fallen for Bonney.

Aside from his henchman Sheriff Brady (Bruce Cabot), Murphy relies on a group of outlaws called The Boys, led by Jesse Evans (Richard Jaeckel). However, Chisum is aided against the Boys by an ex-buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). Outraged by Murphy’s extortionist prices, Tunstall and Chisum start up their own store, which will be run by Alex McSween (Andrew Prine), a lawyer who had worked for Murphy but became dissatisfied with his blatant desire to take over the town. When an attempt by the Boys to ambush a convoy of supplies for the new store fails, Tunstall is framed for rustling, but is accidentally killed by the arresting deputies. The local judge empowers Chisum and his men to find and arrest the deputies. Driven by a thirst for revenge, Bonney kills the two men, and then recruits a gang to rob Murphy’s bank. Surrounded in McSween’s store, Bonney and his friends are about to be slaughtered, when Chisum rounds up his men for a showdown with Murphy.

Historical Accuracy

Screenwriter Andrew Fenady spent a long time studying the Lincoln County War to ensure that all of the characters in the movie were real. Then he apparently threw out most of the historical facts in order to tailor the film to John Wayne, and pitched the movie to producer Michael Wayne, Wayne’s son. The conflict between opposing factions is replaced by a struggle between good and evil, while John Chisum is transformed into John Wayne’s preferred persona, a strong man who relies on himself, but will interfere to protect the community from a bully. Director Andrew McLaglen admits that the story was juiced up to attract an audience but feels that it is still an almost completely accurate version of the Lincoln County War. It isn’t.

The screen Tunstall is an elderly British man who smokes a pipe and has a saint-like belief in non-violence, unlike the real man who simply wanted to replace Murphy and Dolan’s monopoly with his own. Despite Tunstall’s repeated urgings that Bonney should follow the Bible and live a peaceful life, Bonney, like several of Tunstall’s cowhands, had been hired for his skill with a gun. The idea that Bonney was about to become a productive member of society until his mentor is murdered is a key part of the script, so the father-son relationship between Tunstall and Bonney was invented for the movie, even though the real Tunstall was only twenty-four-years-old. There is no denying that Bonney was exploring a relatively law-abiding lifestyle after he had stopped riding with the Boys and was beginning to settle down, but neither he nor his employer were proponents of non-violence, and Bonney spent every free moment practicing with guns. The movie’s Tunstall had never heard of the Boys and is shocked to learn that Bonney had ridden with them a couple of years ago. Actually, everyone in Lincoln County knew who the Boys were, although most wished they did not, since the gang of thugs swaggered around the county, engaging in small-scale rustling and forcing saloons in isolated villages to put the bill on their tabs, which they never paid. While the Boys did raid Chisum’s herds and the herds of other ranchers on behalf of Dolan, they usually took a few cattle at a time, not an entire herd, which would slow them down and enable them to be caught by angry ranchers demanding the return of their four-legged property.

Although the movie is called Chisum, the fictional Chisum bears almost no resemblance to the real man, aside from his nickname King of the Pecos and the fact that his cows were called Jinglebobs. Chisum willingness to allow other ranchers to water their cattle at his river may have matched Wayne’s persona but the genuine Chiusm was a fierce competitor, who used control of water to weaken rival ranchers. Chisum did not control the water because he had arrived in Lincoln County first, but because he had more men and was able to claim a long stretch of the river, even though the smaller ranchers had traditionally watered their cattle there. In fact, he viewed the smaller ranchers as dangerous pests that needed to be squashed. After one rancher was killed by a gunhand working for Chiusm, he proclaimed that he needed to kill seven more men. Unsurprisingly, the owners of ranches near Chisum hated him so much that they rode with Dolan’s posses against McSween and his supporters because McSween was viewed as an ally of Chisum.

Throughout the movie, the screen Chisum repeatedly protests that he had never invited his young niece to travel from Baltimore to live with him in Lincoln County, but he accepts his family obligations and grudgingly comes to enjoy her company. The real Sallie Chisum came to New Mexico with her father and brothers, was sixteen-years-old, and had grown up in Texas, not Baltimore. Since John Wayne can not have peers in a movie, Chisum’s two brothers are eliminated from the story. Furthermore, the ex-slaves who were rumored to be Chisum’s illegitimate children are also absent, presumably the screenwriter did not want to deal with the potential controversy.

Mid-way through the film, it is revealed that Chisum had let Sallie’s mother, the only woman he ever loved, marry his more stable brother because he gambled everything on a single cattle drive to New Mexico to make his fortune. This storyline resembles a key part of The Searchers (1956), but done really badly. More important, the script gives Chisum credit for a daring cattle drive that he does not deserve. Realizing that the Civil War had greatly shrunk the beef market for beef in Texas, Chisum had led a small drive to New Mexico, but he was following cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who had organized a large drive to Fort Stanton, New Mexico to sell beef to the Indian Agency. They made a fortune and the trail became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. The real Chisum prospered simply because he was a very good cattleman, not because he was a bold adventurer.

Since the story is about John Chisum, there is barely enough room for Bonney, so the Regulators do not appear in the movie, except near the end as Bonney’s gang. As a result, Bonney is portrayed as a lone wolf, even though he always operated as part of a group.

Neither Murphy nor his associate James Dolan seem very Irish, which was a critical factor in the conflict between Dolan and Tunstall. Dolan and Murphy were Irish immigrants, who had survived the Irish Famine, an experience that did not make people nice. Having worked hard to push the original Hispanic residents off their land and gain control of the business in the area, Dolan and Murphy would die before they let an upper-class English Protestant take everything away from them, since they felt that the English had kept the Irish down for generations and blamed them for the Great Famine. Chisum had made cattle drives to New Mexico before Murphy arrived in Lincoln County but he did not actually settle in New Mexico until 1872. However, Chisum has to be the pioneer, so the screen Murphy is a recent arrival. It is true that Murphy won the army beef contract by selling cattle rustled from Chisum at a cheaper price, but Murphy did not need to conspire with the commander of the nearby army post, the army simply bought the cheapest beef without asking how he was able to make a profit on such low prices.

The genuine Lawrence Murphy had actually retired and sold his share in the business to Dolan before the Lincoln County War broke out, but Wayne’s Chisum needed an opponent who was roughly the same age, so it was an understandable decision to make Murphy, not Dolan, the leader of the opposing faction in the movie. However, it was unnecessary to make Murphy into a true villain, who condescends to all of his employees, including Brady and Dolan, and even manipulates the well-intentioned but weak governor. Moreover, Sheriff Brady was not a flunky of Dolan, but a respected lawman and pillar of the community, who supported Dolan because of his friendship and debt to Murphy, since they were both Irish immigrants, former sergeants in the regular army, officers in the New Mexico volunteers during the Civil War, and they had helped build Lincoln during the early days. In fact, the assassination of Brady by a group of Regulators, including Bonney, ended people’s sympathy for the Regulators. Admittedly, Dolan’s political connections in the territorial capital gave him a huge advantage over Tunstall and McSween, but he was simply the politicians’ business partner, and a junior one at that. However, Murphy’s influence is inflated to make him a worthy opponent to Wayne’s Chisum.

A love triangle and the hero being nursed by the love interest are critical ingredients of a romance in traditional westerns, and the script obliges, as Sallie nurses a badly wounded Bonney while a jealous Pat Garrett watches. Sallie and Bonney may have had a romance, but she has received attention from Bonney’s biographers only because she was the niece of a famous cattleman, not the daughter of a poor Mexican sheepherder, like the majority of women who fell for Bonney’s charm. In the universe according to John Wayne, men were shy and had to be roped in by women, but the real Bonney was a notorious charmer and famous dancer, who cut a swathe through the young women of the county. Every woman wanted to either bed Bonney or mother him, depending on her age. Garrett was an ex-buffalo hunter but it is unlikely that he competed with Bonney for Sallie’s affections, since he was already married.

During the siege of McSween’s store, the screen McSween asks the sheriff to let Bonney and his friends surrender to the army, and the sheriff replies that the army has no jurisdiction. Admittedly, the army had no jurisdiction, but after five days of gunfire which made stepping outside to get food or water a life-threatening experience, repeated pleas from the terrified residents convinced the local commander to interfere, and he ended the fighting by siding with Dolan. Instead, Chisum plays the role of the cavalry, riding in to save the day.

Chisum’s right-hand man Pepper makes a moving statement partway through the film: “it will be you and Murphy, head to head, horn to horn, sooner or later.” Actually, never. Murphy died an alcoholic, Dolan had taken over the business, and Chisum was not willing to fight Dolan. In fact, he stayed safely out of the fighting and emerged more prosperous than before, while his rivals had been broken. A movie about the real Chisum would have consisted of endless scenes of him looking on from the sidelines, and occasionally feeding the Regulators or giving them fresh horses. McSween, not Chisum, led the fight against Dolan. While the screen version is so idealistic that he is confident that a letter to the president will resolve the situation, the real McSween adopted a more practical approach and gathered a large number of armed, violently-inclined men.


Chisum spends the entire movie resisting the urge to settle the problem of Murphy the old-fashioned way, and puts his faith in the law, until Murphy finally goes too far, and he rides in to re-establish his dominance of the county, symbolized by a massive brawl between Chisum and Murphy. The point of the script is that one good, strong man is needed to protect a community against a bad, strong man, which ignores the fact that the war was a civil war between two greedy, violent factions. The opening and closing shots of Chisum sitting on his horse on top of the hill overlooking the valley, maintaining his vigilance over the community, are a bit much even for a John Wayne movie.

Unlike many stars, John Wayne rarely interfered during the filming because he would not accept a project unless he was satisfied with the script and he usually worked with directors like McLaglen who he was comfortable with. McLaglen was undoubtedly an experienced, reliable director. He had directed ninety-six episodes of Gunsmoke and over a hundred episodes of Have Gun Will Travel, a record for each show, but his ability to churn out so many formulaic westerns does not say much about his creativity. In fact, he talks more during the commentary track about the need to stay on schedule than the story or the characters.

Ben Johnson’s Pepper, Chisum’s right-hand man, and his steady stream of sarcastic comments that he makes to himself is the best part of the movie.

Wayne is looking old but he has a good brawl with Murphy at the end, where the two men clearly did a fair amount of their own stunts.

Paintings of a cattle drive that battles bad weather and Indian attacks appear during the opening credits, and they are an excellent storytelling device, but it is sad that the paintings have more life and energy than the actual movie.

Although he considered himself an experienced director of action scenes, director Andrew McLaglen could not direct an action scene to save his life. Directing appears to have been a mechanical exercise for McLaglen, who believed that the key element was to ensure that the stunt riders fell at the right time and at the right camera angle. The cattle stampede through the town is the only mildly exciting scene in the movie. None of the characters ever progress beyond two-dimensional, and everybody simply seems to be repeating lines that had already been said in better westerns.

It says a lot about John Wayne that he made such a bland mediocre ego trip a year after his stunning performance in True Grit (1969). Once he was back at his own company, with his in-house director, he reverted to his usual habit of simply going through the motions.

Through the simple approach of ignoring most of the facts, especially Pat Garrett killing Bonney in the dark, Chisum achieves a happy ending to the story of Billy the Kid.