A Functional Western That Lacks True Grit
Take the legendary figures of William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) and Pat Garrett and then throw in the character of John Chisum played by western icon John Wayne and what do you get? Well to be honest you get "Chisum" a very functional western which manoeuvres itself through all those expected moments and scenes from gunfights through to stand offs delivering plenty of entertainment along the way. But in the John Wayne portfolio of movies "Chisum" is not the most memorable.
Having helped found the town of Lincoln, John Chisum (John Wayne - True Grit) becomes increasingly concerned by the actions of rancher Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker) who appears to be taking over the town, buying up shops and property as well as nearby land. When it becomes apparent that Murphy doesn't always do things legally Chisum and fellow rancher Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles) try to put a stop to it legally, but with Murphy owning the law as well they stand no chance. With trouble reaching fever pitch Tunstall's young man William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel) decides to take matters into his own hands.
One of the strangest things about "Chisum" is that whilst John Wayne is the central figure, the big star name it almost feels like he takes a back seat with other characters and actors having a more prominent part to play. That's not to say that either John Wayne or his character is unimportant but at times "Chisum" seems more interested in Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. And if the movie isn't focusing on that pair of legendary western characters it then focuses on Billy the Kid and Chisum's niece Sallie with John Wayne almost there filling in the gaps in between.
But that really isn't the problem when it comes to "Chisum" as the problem lies in it being too functional. It feels like the writers have gone through the western playbook and written a movie which covers all the main bases whilst bringing in the legendary figures and storylines which any other western featuring Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett cover. It just doesn't quite come off, feeling heavily manufactured as we get gun fights and stand offs at exactly the right time and a sense of predictability as to where it will all end.
The storyline is made worse by dialogue which flicks between being corny and weak which combined with predominantly 2 dimensional characters makes everything about "Chisum" both average and functional. There is no naturalness to it, no great acting or scenes which really grab your attention for being dramatic or brilliant. But whilst it is all very functional and for the most predictable it's entertaining if you like westerns as it has all those elements, the tough talking, the gun fights and of course John Wayne.
Talking of which well what is there to say about John Wayne as John Chisum other than again it feels not so much that we are watching a new character rather than John Wayne just playing himself. For a lot of "Chisum" it feels like John Wayne is taking a back seat providing more of a link for the characters of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett but as the movie builds up to that expected action crescendo he becomes more central to things. It's by no means one of the John Wayne's best performances, again almost functional, but without Wayne lending his status and charisma to "Chisum" it would have been a lot weaker.
Strangely with John Wayne taking almost a back seat you would imagine other stars to really shine but to be frank none of them do. Geoffrey Deuel as Billy the Kid has the handsomeness of a young gun fighter but the character is for the most 2 dimensional, same can be said of Glenn Corbett as Pat Garrett, Ben Johnson as James Pepper, Pamela McMyler as Sallie Chisum and even Forrest Tucker who as bad guy Lawrence Murphy is nowhere near nasty enough. In fact the only actor who makes any presence is Patric Knowles who gives his interpretation of Henry Tunstall a piece of class.
What this all boils down to is that "Chisum" for want of a better word is functional. It's a western which has potential but ends up going through the motions with 2 dimensional characters, cliche ridden dialogue and a few adequate gun fights. But it never really comes alive or becomes that engrossing and with John Wayne seeming to take a back seat through much of the movie it's most certainly not the best of his westerns.