A textbook example of movie-star ego riding roughshod over a potentially engrossing storyline, this latter-day John Wayne Western puts the Duke’s character at the center of a notorious real-life feud that involved dueling ranchers, out-of-control capitalism, and frenemies Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Chisum has so many story elements that it feels like a highlight reel from a miniseries, but the centrality of a typical Wayne protagonist bludgeons interesting nuances, transforming Chisum into a flat story of he-man heroism. Making matters worse are such painfully old-fashioned flourishes as the corny songs that play over tedious montages. Chisum has many watchable passages, thanks to abundant action scenes, vibrantly colorful location photography, and zesty supporting performances, but the picture is something of a mess.
Set in New Mexico circa the late 1870s, the movie revolves around a rivalry between noble cattleman John Chisum (Wayne) and his disreputable competitor, Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker). Chisum owns huge tracts of land but treats people fairly, whereas Murphy is an avaricious creep willing to cheat, lie, and steal in order to expand his holdings. As Murphy’s greed becomes more rapacious, Chisum gathers colleagues including crusty sidekick Pepper (Ben Johnson), fellow gentleman rancher Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles), and principled nomad Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). Also drawn into the good guys’ armada is semi-reformed outlaw William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (Geoffrey Dueul), who works for Tunstall but romances Chisum’s niece. Meanwhile, Murphy gathers a horde of snarling henchmen, played in cartoonish fashion by lively actors including Robert Donner, Christopher George, and Richard Jaeckel. The cast of Chisum is huge, and as a result, most of the actors get shortchanged in terms of character development and screen time.
Written and produced by Andrew J. Fenady, Chisum attempts to tackle an epic story within the confines of a standard feature, which makes everything seem rushed and superficial. Plus, whenever the movie slows down for something pointless, such as Chisum’s meeting with an Indian chief—a scene that communicates nothing except the lead character’s principles, which have already been described ad nauseum—narrative momentum suffers. As for the performances, Wayne is Wayne, still quite virile and not yet inhabiting the late-life gravitas that made some of his subsequent ’70s Westerns elegiac, while old hands from Johnson to Tucker sprinkle their one-dimensional roles with charm. Unfortunately, the younger players incarnating the star-crossed lovers (any sensible viewer knows it won’t go well for Billy and Chisum’s niece) are bland, and the actors portraying secondary villains have nothing to do except strut around in filthy clothes and shoot likable people.