"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chisum (Warner Bros, 1970)

 






 





Wayne! John Wayne! He’ll still keep goin’ on..



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Last Sunday, I was talking about those late-1960s and early 70s Batjac Westerns that Wayne made, and we discussed The Train Robbers. Today, Chisum.
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It’s pointless criticizing Western movies for not being accurate portrayals of history. That’s not what they are there for. But rarely has a cowboy film played such havoc with historical fact as the McLaglen/Wayne offering of 1970, Chisum.
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The names of some of the characters belong to people who actually existed: Chisum, Bonney, Tunstall, McSween, Garrett. All resemblance to truth ends there.
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Never mind. This is a big, colorful, conventional Hollywood Western with loads of gunfights and stampeding cattle and horseback chases and all. It is very well photographed by William H Clothier (one of Wayne's preferred cinematographers) with lots of big Durango panoramas.

Michael Wayne, Batjac president, thought the story would fit in well with his father's political views. Wikipedia tells us (so it must be true) that "during filming, John Mitchum, brother of Robert, introduced John Wayne to his patriotic poetry. Seeing that Wayne was greatly moved by the word, Forrest Tucker suggested that the two collaborate to record some of the poetry, which resulted in a Grammy-nominated spoken-word album, America: Why I Love Her." Batjac first made the picture for Fox but they sold it to Warners.
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Wayne is his usual tough-guy self and the movie has some very good supporting acting. Wayne's drinking Buddy Forrest Tucker is excellent as the principal baddie Murphy and I thought Christopher George (the hired gun in El Dorado) as Nodeen, the bounty-hunter become sheriff, perfectly beastly (actually, he and ‘Mrs. McSween’ fell in love on the set and married so he can’t have been that beastly).

Ben Johnson as Chisum’s sidekick is splendid (of course) and he has a bit of acting ‘business’ running through the picture as he mumbles to himself.


Hank Worden is still there after all these years in an amusing bit part as Stationmaster Elwood. Mind, he always looked old, even when he was young. Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) has gone for the Tom Selleck look:


Geoffrey Deuel is a satisfactory Billy by cinematic standards despite the blow-dried hair, and there are some chicks in 70s hairdos and dresses.

 
The worst thing about it is the Dominic Frontiere title song (sung by Merle Haggard, who deserved better), “Chisum! John Chisum! He’ll still keep goin’ on.” It also has some awful spoken doggerel between the choruses recited by William Conrad. Many Westerns have grim title songs but the trouble with this one is that the tune is taken for the orchestral score throughout the movie and boy, do you get tired of it by the end. It was rubbish in the first place.
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If you want Chisum as heroic capitalist of the Old West standing up for the little guy, this is the ideal picture for you. If you don’t buy that, watch it anyway. It’s a good example of the big, commercial 70s Wayne Westerns. Formulaic, straight-down-the-line yet full of vim and pzazz, and Wayne is pretty damn indomitable.
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The New York Times review said, “Forget substance. Settle for color and commotion and you won't feel cheated.” That’s about right.
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Of course, the song really should have gone, “Wayne! John Wayne! He’ll still keep goin’ on.”

 
President Nixon, appalled by the Manson murders, thought that America could be straightened out by using John Wayne’s Chisum as a model. The mind boggles. But he did say, "I wondered why it is that the western survives year after year after year. A good western will outdraw [unconscious humor, I think] some of the other subjects. Perhaps one of the reasons, in addition to the excitement, the gun play, and the rest, which perhaps is part of it, but they can get that in other kinds of movies, but one of the reasons is, perhaps - and this may be a square observation - is that the good guys come out ahead in the westerns; the bad guys lose." Well, he had a point. In John Wayne Westerns anyway.


 

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