Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Times They Are a-Changin’: Chisum

The opening titles sequence of Andrew V. McLaglen’s Chisum could stand alone as a modest yet effective short film. Constructing a loose narrative about the trials of a Western cattle drive through a series of static, painted-canvas images brought to life via quick cuts, whip pans and zooms, the sequence plays like a collaboration between C.M. Russell and Ken Burns. Its purpose is to serve as both prelude and reflection – showing how the film’s titular character came to be a man of wealth and reputation – but it entertains on its own merits: evoking the tumult of the cattle drive, the chaos of a lightning storm on the prairie and the perilousness of a clash with Indians. It’s set to the “Ballad of John Chisum,” which combines the score of Dominic Frontiere with the vocals of Merle Haggard, who sings – more like Vincent-Price-raps – about a guy who rode toward the Pecos to find out where he belonged, and it ends with an image of that man on horseback, standing proudly atop a hill and looking down on his New Mexico estate. At that point, the canvas dissolves into the celluloid image, and the painted figure who previously had resembled John Wayne now actually is John Wayne – as John Chisum, of course.

It’s a romantic introduction, one that conjures up nostalgia for Western history and for the Western itself. The initial shot of Wayne, framed in profile and facing to the left, nods at his supremacy – king of the Western hill – while suggesting a man looking into his vast past, contemplating all that it took to rise to the top. Chisum isn’t about a man at a crossroads. It’s about a man who long ago charted his course and now feels the rest of the world catching up, trying to unseat him. “Thinking about the beginning?” asks Ben Johnson’s James Pepper, riding up to Wayne’s Chisum. “And before,” Chisum answers back. Wayne and Johnson are in character, but they might as well be talking as actors – two men who helped blaze a cinematic trail that inspired others to follow in their boot prints; two men who from their elevated position can see that their way of life can’t last much longer. Chisum (1970) was made in the aftermath of Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy (1964-66) and was released a year after Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, films that redefined the Western genre, and it’s clear McLaglen and screenwriter Andrew J. Fenady know which way the wind is blowing. “Everything’s different now,” Pepper says. “Not everything,” responds Chisum, gesturing to some grazing deer, although the line seems designed as a nod toward Wayne’s staying power. “Most everything,” Pepper corrects. “Well,” Chisum says, puffing on a cigar, “things usually change for the better,” and although he sounds sincere, he also comes across like a man who knows that resistance is futile.

Chisum is a film straddling the fence between the old and new. The slow pan showing Chisum’s sprawling homestead amongst the photogenic hills affirms that an appreciation of the scenery is still core to the Western going into the 1970s, but Chisum is also dominated by tight close-ups that suggest Leone’s influence, if not his skill. McLaglen’s brim-to-chin close-ups, in comparison to Leone’s, seem perfunctory and awkward; like someone trying to use new slang, McLaglen knows the mechanics but not the rhythms. Furthermore, many of McLaglen’s close-ups appear to be the unintended consequence of his eagerness to use quick inward and outward zooms, a technique that has negligible dramatic effect but does a fine job of drawing attention to the filmmaking, which is precisely the point. It isn’t enough anymore, Chisum suggests, for a Western to unfold through long shots backdropped by Monument Valley or some other picturesque location, and so McLaglen spices up the filmmaking, as if determined to inject hipness into the Wayne Western. The result is a film that seems unnecessarily busy at times, but not to the point of alienating fans of the traditional Western. In fact, many of Chisum’s pleasures are the result of McLaglen sticking to the tried and true, reveling in the old-fashioned thrill of fast-galloping horses, outbursts of gunfire and the sight of Wayne’s Chisum reaching his fist back toward the camera before slamming his meaty paw into the villain’s jaw.

The film’s signature scene is purely old-school, too, one that John Ford would have been proud to shoot. Late in the picture, with war broken out in Lincoln County, Chisum rides to the rescue of William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel) and fellow enemies of the duplicitous and conniving Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker) by driving a herd of cattle into town. The herd stampedes through the barricade meant to keep Chisum out and sends Murphy’s men running for their lives while Chisum, Pepper, Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) and the other rescuers ride in on their horses, as if surfing the cattle tsunami, firing rifles and pistols at Murphy’s skedaddling hired guns. As action scenes go, it’s a simple concept but an awesome spectacle the likes of which we just don’t see anymore. If Chisum were remade today, the stampede would more than likely be achieved via CGI, which remains a weightless and dispiriting alternative to the real thing (see: Australia). McLaglen’s stampede is overflowing with genuine chaos as the cattle flatten fences, overturn carts and knock out posts holding up storefront awnings, all while trying to keep from being trampled themselves.

The stampede is followed by a terrific shot in which Chisum, scanning the scene in search of Murphy, rides toward the camera and into a close-up that recalls the zoom in Stagecoach that introduces Wayne’s Ringo Kid. Alas, what follows that shot isn’t nearly as graceful. The ensuing fistfight between Chisum and Murphy is overlong and overdone, with both men crashing through windows, doors and anything else breakable that happens to be nearby. Making matters worse, Wayne’s stunt double appears to be several inches shorter and at least 50 pounds lighter than he is. There’s no confusing one man for the other, and so when Wayne’s double gets thrown through some stair railings and out of view and then Wayne, without a cut, stands up and charges up the stairs, it plays like comedy. A minute or two later, the scene ends with Chisum and Murphy taking a fall from a second-story balcony that leaves Murphy impaled by the tip of a trophy steer horn, and that bit of brief gore is sign enough of how the Western is changing around Wayne. If Chisum proved that Wayne could still mix it up with the best of them in 1970, it also made it clear that his days at the top were numbered.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. Thanks for posting this. The John Wayne of "McQ" wasn't far behind this, of course...

Jason Bellamy said...

Sorry for the delayed reply.

McQ is a Wayne film I haven't seen in decades and remember so poorly it's as if I haven't seen it. I need to put that on the list.

It was fun to revisit Chisum and The Cowboys, which I also just reviewed.

Thanks for stopping by!

Richard Bellamy said...

The opening credits sequence is a very memorable part of this film, and you describe it well. As for the rest of the film - you mention the memorable stampede and the silly and, yes, very overlong fistfight. That's about it. This is not one of my favorites, and I find much of the action to be TV quality, as opposed to the better last films of John Wayne: The Cowboys, True Grit, and The Shootist.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Yeah, as my review reveals, I think, I found it most interesting as a case study in the changing approach to Westerns. Between the credits and the stampede, there isn't anything particularly thrilling, although the banter between Chisum and Pepper is pleasurable.