Chisum (1970) is among the lesser known John Wayne films, produced by Batjac, it was loosely based on the events of the Lincoln County War.
We are introduced to John Chisum, a cattle baron. Who carved an empire of his own after years of labor, strife, and hard work. At the point we meet him his empire is built, things are running smoothly, with nothing left to conquer.
Soon excitement starts, the Sheriff pays Mexican raiders to steal a herd of horses, killing several of Chisum’s men. When the king of the Pecos finds out about this he doesn’t take too long making a plan.
On his way to get the horses he runs into his neighbor, Henry Tunstall. Along with Tunstall’s new protege, William Bonny, better known as Billy the Kid.
Chisum confronts the bandits, who graciously offer to sell back Chisum his horses.
Bandit: Did you bring gold?
Chisum: Just lead.
With Bonny’s help, Chisum and his men make short work of the bandits.
When Chisum goes to meet his niece, Sally, from the stage in town we see that the majority of the businesses in Lincoln are now owned by one man, L.G. Murphy. James Pepper, Chisum’s right hand, points this out. The Cattleman shrugs it off, as long as he doesn’t bother them, he doesn’t care.
It soon becomes evident that things are changing, Murphy has plans for becoming the new king of the Pecos, but needs Chisum’s land, with the Pecos river, to do it. By controlling the river, he can control all the surround ranches who depend on the water.
A new character appears in the drama Pat Garrett, a former buffalo hunter, who find employment with John Chisum after helping prevent a herd from being rustled.
Murphy makes it clear he wants control, having the only general store in town he begins to raise prices higher than most can afford. Seeing this, Tunstall and Chisum decide to start their own store and bank. The two are soon informed of Murphy’s designs on Chisum’s territory by Alex McSween, a young, honest lawyer who was hired by Murphy.
Declaring he can’t work for such a man, McSween says he’ll go back to Kansas. Seeing an honest man, Tunstall hires him to run their new store and deal with the legal matter there from.
After Murphy’s goons attempt to disrupt a shipment of goods for the store Chisum wants to take action. Tunstall argues that the law should be taken into account, send for the judge and let the law take it’s course. Reluctantly Chisum agrees.
Things seem fine and settled until Tunstall is murdered by Deputies under Murphy’s orders. This pushing everyone in motion, causing Chisum, Garrett and Bonny to do what they must.
James Pepper had been with Chisum from the beginning, he was there on the drives and helped him form his empire. Throughout the film he’s there at Chisum’s side, offering council and advice, occasionally mumbling it under his breath.
All this speechifying, storekeeping, prayer meeting, don’t amount to spit in a river. There’s only one thing that will make this territory know who’s bull of the woods, and sometime it’s going to happen.
– James Pepper
The sidekick is often an unsung hero, he decides to stick with the main protagonist despite opportunities to do otherwise. Passing up chances at greatness in their own right they become great for their dedication. Pepper is one of those sidekicks.
Billy The Kid
Tunstall hires this boy with a troubled past, saying he wants to save Billy from the fate that befalls most of his stock.
Through the beginning of the film we see Tunstall educating him, giving him a Bible to learn to read. He also tries to instill character in him, and push him to do well. He has faith that the boy has ability and gives him the opportunity to prove his worth. Billy, for his turn, does his best to stay honest, rejecting the offer of his former life when an old rustler friend of his comes to town.
After Tunstall is murdered by Murphy’s illegitimate deputy sheriffs for rustling, Billy decides its time to take things into his own hands.
I made you a promise, Mr. Tunstall. Now I’m making myself a promise. It says in the Bible, “The candle of the wicked shall be put out.”
– Billy the Kid
After Chisum captures the murderers he seals his fate in the blood of the former deputies. From that point on, nothing will stop Billy from hurting Murphy and getting revenge for his mentor.
We are fortunate when someone comes along in our lives to give us that hand, or opportunity we need. There are many stories, and will be many more, of great men and women who have had mentors teach and guide them to become the best they could. Behind every Achilles there is usually a Chiron, a trainer of heroes, to form their raw potential.
Things might have been different for Billy had Tunstall lived, but each man has his decisions to make. Revenge is a difficult poison to take, often it’s effects are worse than the benefits it claims. Justice is when the sword is held by the ones it has been given, revenge is when that sword is taken and used by unlawful authority. It destroyed Billy’s hope and future, leading ultimately to his death by Pat Garrett.
He risked his herd going to an unknown land, with no idea what was ahead except work, and that he found abundantly.
..land was here for the taking and the keeping, if you were willing to fight. Rustlers, disease, the land itself, and Indians.
– John Chisum
When Billy claims that he’d have done what he had 25 years earlier Chisum differs. All Chisum wants is to have his land, to raise his cattle and be left alone. He sets his eyes no further. But, as many a man, he’ll defend what’s his with his dying breath. He even tries to do it the lawful way.
Chisum: Well I don’t favor talking to vermin, but I’ll talk to you just this once. You’re not just getting started. The line’s been drawn. What Billy did balanced the books so far. But if one of your men cross my land or even touch one of my cows, or do anything to that store, I’m not going to the sheriff, the governor, or the president of the United States. I’m coming to see you.
Murphy: Hmph. Mr. Chisum, that sounds like a threat.
Chisum: [John Chisum belts Murphy, knocking him down with his right fist] Wrong word. FACT!
When the law no longer defended his rights, as happens when the sheriff is paid by the villain, he does what is historically proven: he defends his rights.
The precedence of history is actually that the land owner can take the law in his hands if there is no proper representative of the law and his rights are being violated.
It takes not only character, but guts to do what Chisum did. He had what I call chutzpah, that audacity and tenacity to do not only what was necessary, but what was right.
The film ends with the same scene it started with, Chisum watching over his land. His battle done, he watches over his property, ready for whatever happens next.
When we have built our “empires,” when we think our lives are set without any change, we have to remember to keep watch. Trouble comes no matter what age or place you are, to survive it you need to be willing to fight.
Is there a movie you think has qualities of the American Dream? Let us know in the comments bellow!