This movie generally covers the Lincoln County War and the rise of Billy the Kid.
John Simpson Chisum: [lighting the sergeant’s cigar] Sergeant, there’s one thing I oughtta tell you; if you lay a hand on White Buffalo again, I’ll kill ya’.
What can I say about the star of this movie that hasn’t been said before? Marion Robert Morrison starred as John Chisum but of course, you know the actor as John Wayne. 181 acting credits spanning 50 years from 1926 to 1976. In those early years of Wayne’s career, he met a real western lawman who had come to Hollywood to try and sell his story. That man, from whom John Wayne learned to act like a cowboy was none other than Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt Earp is such an icon of the western movie genre that a review of IMDB shows no less than 56 movies portrayed that characters spanning from the 1930’s all the way through the ought teens including the masterful Tombstone (1993) that showed why Kurt Russell was cast in roles as diverse as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Used Cars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Silkwood (1983), The Best of Times (1986), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Captain Ron (1992), Stargate (1994), and Miracle (2004). We will get to those movies later. But I digress – went off on a little bit of a man crush there.
To sum up, John Wayne could not pick a better cowboy to learn from.
The character of Lawrence Murphy was played by Forrest Tucker. Tucker is a well-known actor with almost 150 acting credits, the majority of which were television roles. He is perhaps best known for his role on the television show “F-Troop” (1965-1967). However, I am more impressed by his role in Auntie Mame (1958) where he was cast as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside the owner of Peckerwood Plantation just outside of Savannah.
Actor Christopher George played Dan Nodeen a snarling hired gun working for the Murphy side. I would not normally mention him except for two things. The first was a line he delivered in this flick. When asking where he was going he replied he was leaving because there aren’t enough paydays in this outfit. Another words money ain’t worth getting killed for. Secondly, when working with beautiful starlet Lynda Day on this film they fell in love and were married. After that, she was known as Lynda Day George. Lynda Day played Sue McSween who was married to an honest storekeeper who was caught in the middle of the feud. Day has 80 acting credits and was a successful TV actress.
British actor Patric Knowles was cast as the English cattleman, Herny Tunstall. For some reason, the producers cast a much older actor for this part. In reality, Tunstall was 25 when he was murdered. Knowles has 127 credits from 1932 to 1973. Knowles was cast as Frank Andrews in The Wolf Man (1941) who helped track and kill the Wolfman. Knowles played the role of Will Scarlett in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and the unrequited love in Auntie Mame (1958).
Ben Johnson played the role of Chisum’s (John Wayne‘s) sidekick. He peppers this movie with authentic frontier gibberish and is constantly mumbling to himself. Johnson had 104 acting roles and consistently played the role of the wise cowpoke. His most noted role is in The Wild Bunch (1969).
Geoffrey Deuel played Billy ‘The Kid’ Bonney in this movie. This was his best-known role and very little is available on where he is now. He has 38 acting credits with his last being in 2001.
Glenn Corbett played the role of Pat Garrett. Corbett played one of the outlaws that kidnapped John Wayne‘s son in Big Jake (1971), he was also in Midway (1976) along with everyone else that could walk. I don’t know if you remember that movie, but it was the second movie to have Sensurround. It is described as a “special low-frequency bass speaker setup consisting of four huge speakers loaned out by distributors to select theaters showing the film. This system was employed only during certain sequences of the film, and was so powerful that it actually cracked plaster at some movie theaters.” I saw this movie in 1976 and I think I still have a hearing impairment.
Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez played a Mexican Rancher in Chisum (1970) but he can be seen in 85 movies playing bit parts. A few John Wayne films where he was present include The High and the Mighty (1954), Rio Bravo (1959), and Hellfighters (1968). Of course, we would not want to forget him in The Love Bug (1968).
Finally, Sheriff Brady was played by John Wayne‘s old drinking buddy Bruce Cabot.
Chisum (1970) is set during The Lincoln County War. I mean the one in New Mexico territory in 1878 and not anything that happened in Nebraska. In a nutshell, Lawrence Murphy owned a store and some other stuff and he was pretty happy setting the prices due to lack of competition. Englishman John Tunstall arrived on the scene and with backing from powerful rancher John Chisum tried to break the monopoly by opening a competing store.
Each side started gathering gunfighters, ranch hands, and lawmen for the coming fight. The Murphy side was supported by the Jesse Evans gang and the local sheriff Brady. On the Tunstall side were a group of armed men known as the Regulators. Among this group was the town constable Richard Brewer and a skinny kid by the name of William Bonney. No doubt you know him as Billy the Kid. Somewhere in the middle of the two groups was Pat Garrett.
Well like any good western the two sides start knocking each other off. But wait a minute I’m still talking about real history. I haven’t gotten to the movie yet. First Murphy’s people killed the Englishmen Tunstall. Then the Regulators killed Sheriff Brady. The killings continued for a few months with names such as the Blackwater Massacre where only 3 people were killed, and the Battle of Blazer’s Mill. These nicely named murders finally resulted in the Battle of Lincoln.
The two sides took up positions around town and started shooting and hollering at each other. A couple of folks got killed but it was basically a standoff. On the fourth day the army arrived. They pointed their cannons at the Regulators and some of them fled. Later that day they set the house on fire driving the remaining Regulators from the house. A few more were killed in the fight but the Kid and some others got away.
Things settled down after the fight. Two years later Pat Garrett became the County Sheriff. Garrett and Billy the Kid were good friends and had often been seen gambling together in the local saloon earning the nicknames “Big Casino” and “Little Casino.” This did not stop Garrett from killing Bonney in the night under questionable circumstances.
This story has been retold by Hollywood many times. Notables include The Left Handed Gun (1958) Young Guns (1988), and today’s subject Chisum (1970). I just want to take a second to talk about Paul Newman and The Left Handed Gun (1958). Newman did a great job in this movie and I hope to return to him for Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and The Sting (1973). But what I want to talk about is the left hand. It was widely believed that Billy the Kid was left-handed. The only proven photograph of him shows holster on the left side. When the rifle he was holding in his other hand was examined in the late 1950’s it was found that breach opening was facing the wrong way. This was confirmed in 2001 when the buckle and buttons in the picture were studied. It seems that the photographer simply flipped the negative before the image was printed.
The movie plot starts out with widower Chisum, having arrived in the valley first, is content to just own most of the land and cattle. Murphy gets a little heavy handed in his land buying and dry goods pricing. Chisum teams with gentleman rancher Tunstall for a little fair capitalism. Also, Tunstall is playing father figure to William Bonney AKA pre-Billy-the-Kid.
Murphy hires a team of goons and eventually they murder Tunstall. This sets The Kid on a killing spree that sparks a good old fashion range war. The two sides square off and have an across the street gun fight. Chisum stampedes cows down the main street and breaks up the fight. He finds Murphy. They fight and both fall from the second story where Murphy is given his reward by falling on a cow horn. You know not dairy cows, real Texas longhorns. Garrett becomes sheriff, gets the girl, and rich guy Chisum goes back to lording over his valley. Billy the Kid becomes an outlaw. The end.
Is that a better ending than the real ending? I don’t know how I feel.
World-Famous Short Summary – English boy goes to the Wild West, hangs out with Billy the Kid. Things end badly for the English boy. Oh and for Billy the Kid also.