By the time, the movie was made, there was a complete emotional and intellectual identification between actor and role: Chisum is described as being “fat, wealthy, tough, trusting, stubborn, generous, and sentimental.”
Indeed, the film’s popular title song (music by Dominic Frontiere) states autobiographically and rhetorically, “Chisum, Chisum, can you still keep going on” Which prompted the London Observer to note: “Chisum” clearly sets out to demonstrate that he can and will (go on); that he is still the virility symbol in that American dream of open spaces, clenched fists and high corn.”
Many critics regard the film as a more general political allegory. Though set in 1878, the movie expressed Wayne’s contemporary values. The attitude toward Indians, for example, was in tune with the zeitgeist of the 1970s, depicting them as decent human beings.
In one scene, Wayne threatens to kill an army sergeant if he continues to mistreat Chief White Buffalo, who is held captive. This and other contemporary issues prompted one critic to observe: “Could it be that the voice of the Old West has become the Voice of Middle America,” and that “It’s all a bit like white suburbia with cattle, instead of Cadillacs.”
Narrative Structure: Detailed Plot
John Wayne plays the titular land baron, who clashes with greedy Lawrence Murphy, aiming to get control of the trade and the law in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory.
The two men could not have been more different. Chisum is an aging rancher with an eventful past and a paternalistic nature towards his companions and community. Murphy, a malevolent land developer, plans to take control of the county for his own personal gain.
When Murphy’s men tip off Mexican rustlers who plan to steal Chisum’s horses, Chisum and sidekick James Pepper stop the bandits with help from newcomer William H. Bonney, also known as “Billy the Kid.” Billy, who’s been given a chance to reform by Chisum’s philanthropic British neighbor, rancher Henry Tunstall. falls for Chisum’s newly arrived niece, Sallie.
Buying up the stores in town, Murphy not only abusess his monopoly to push up the prices, he also appoints his own county sheriff and deputies. He brings in lawyer Alexander McSween, whose principles eventually motivate him to seek work with Chisum and Tunstall. The ranchers set up their own bank and general store in town under McSween’s control.
Murphy’s men attempt to steal Chisum’s cattle before he can sell them to the U.S. Army, and Chisum’s ranch hands are warned by Pat Garrett. Buffalo hunter Garrett agrees to help Chisum and befriends Bonney. Together they foil an attack by Murphy’s men.
Fed up with Murphy’s activities, rancher Henry Tunstall seeks the intervention of Governor Sam Axtell. On the way, he is intercepted by Murphy’s deputies, who falsely accuse him of rustling and kill him. Chisum and Garrett hunt down the deputies and bring them back to town for trial. Bonney, seeking revenge for the murder of his mentor, overpowers Garrett by surprise and shoots dead both deputies.
Murphy appoints bounty hunter Dan Nodeen as the new sheriff, giving him orders to hunt down Bonney. Nodeen has a score to settle, as a previous encounter with Bonney has left him with a permanent limp.
Billy breaks into McSween’s store looking for dynamite to rob Murphy’s bank. He is spotted by Nodeen, who surrounds the store with Murphys’s men. McSween’s wife is allowed to leave. McSween later comes out unarmed but Nodeen shoots him in cold blood.
Alerted by McSween’s wife Sue, Chisum rides into town with his ranch hands, and stampedes his cattle through the barricades. He tracks down Murphy and takes him on in a fist fight, and Murphy gets impaled on steer horns. With his paymaster dead, Nodeen flees.
The tale ends with Garrett taking over as sheriff. U.S. Army General Lew Wallace becomes governor of the territory, and with law and order restored, benevolent patriarch Chisum resumes vigil over the Pecos valley.
Chisum, like most Wayne’s vehicles after 1960, is self-conscious and in awe of Wayne, the legendary star, especially in the opening and closing scenes, which were similar, showing Wayne to be sitting heroically astride a horse on a hill.
It looked as if Wayne were “preparing himself for the immortality of something like, say, a commemorative postage stamp.” One critic compared Wayne to “a stone face on Mount Rushmore.