Review for Chisum
I hadn’t seen this film in over twenty years. However, Westerns are meant to be seen on big screens, in widescreen, and finding Chisum on Blu-ray was the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted. Still, it may have been too soon. You see, when we bought our first VHS player, it came with three blank video tapes. For months that was all we had, and pretty quickly, I had taped Star Trek II, The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, and Chisum. By the time we bought another blank video tape, I had those three films memorised. So now, almost a quarter of a century after the last time I watched Chisum on a pan and scan TV recording, I put the Blu-ray into the machine, and I’m still speaking the dialogue before the characters!
New Mexico territory is one of the last frontiers in the US, where a man can carve out a life for himself with his own two hands. That’s what rancher John Chisum did when he drove a herd of cattle down there, and staked out a ranch larger than most countries. But change is coming to New Mexico, and that’s not just his niece Sallie moving in. Businessman Lawrence Murphy is planning a grab of his own, and not just land. He wants all the businesses and money too. Soon his name is on every building in the town of Lincoln. With Chisum’s land controlling most of the water in the area, Murphy resorts to underhand tactics, and the Lincoln County War begins. And in the middle of this mayhem is a young ranch hand named William Bonney, and a former buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett.
Chisum gets a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, and it’s a good one. The image is clear and sharp, detail levels are excellent, and colours are strong and consistent. There is no issue with visible compression or aliasing, and the print is clean and stable, while not having seen any of the post-processing that result in DNR and de-graining. The film does look its age, but it’s an honest and organic viewing experience. It’s easy to believe how much difference original aspect ratio has on a Western; I finally got to see the whole movie, and the location photography looks amazing on the Blu-ray. But it’s still surprise enough to make me feel like I was watching a completely different film, even with the dialogue memorised.
It’s mono all the way, with DTS-HD MA 2.0 English, DD 2.0 French, German and Spanish, with subtitles in these languages and Czech. The all important dialogue is clear throughout, and the action sequences come through well, with no distortion or dropouts. I also love the music for the film, a couple of strong ballads, and the rousing theme for the movie; although that may be due to familiarity and overexposure than any subjective preference.
Warner Brothers release the same disc worldwide (although not in the UK at this time), so I went for the cheapest, the German release. For your monetary savings, you have to put up with German sleeve text obviously, a whopping great ratings logo and one of those eco cases with holes cut in the plastic.
The disc has ported over extras from a previous DVD release, beginning with an audio commentary from director Andrew V. McLaglen, which is dry, gappy, and occasionally informative.
John Wayne and Chisum is an 8:55 480i behind the scenes piece, with voice over man doing all the talking, over what is an extended trailer with b-roll footage.
Speaking of trailers the theatrical trailer is here as well, running to 3:30 HD.
I still know this film like the back of my hand, even after having it absent from my life for so long. And I still love it. It’s one of my favourite John Wayne Westerns, which isn’t a common opinion when it comes to Chisum, made in the declining years of the genre, already supplanted by the grittier and amoral Spaghetti Westerns. Chisum still has its conflict between right and wrong, heroes and villains, and its gunplay and action are done for fun, for entertainment purposes. Like so many memorable Westerns, Chisum takes real life, a real history, and rewrites it to make it an entertainment. Most of these characters existed, there was a Lincoln County War, with Chisum on one side, Murphy on the other, and it was brief and bloody. But it never happened the way it did in the movie. That’s good, because all I want from a John Wayne Western is good old-fashioned escapism, and Chisum has that in abundance.
But it has an interesting storyline to it that does go beyond the white hats and black hats of the more simplistic genre entries. New Mexico Territory circa 1870 is shown to be a land in flux. People like Chisum came and staked out their claims, tamed the land to their purposes, but that was as far as it went. With civilisation though come the other things, modernisation, business and industry, so there is an aspect of the film which is about a resistance to change, as well as the inevitability of change. For Chisum it becomes a choice between the change he is willing to accept, and the change that he is not. Given that Murphy is such an inveterate villain, there becomes a moral imperative to resist that change which doesn’t leave much room for nuance, but the film does have its reflective and thoughtful side to it, with Wayne’s Chisum presented as a fatherly, wise man who has earned his wisdom through harsh experience.
While the veterans of Western cinema drive the story in the film, it’s the ‘next generation’ of Western stars who hold the emotional arc of the film (or they would have been the next generation had the genre maintained) Geoffrey Deuel as Billy the Kid, Glenn Corbett as Pat Garrett and Pamela McMyler as Sallie Chisum have the emotional heart of the film, with Sallie a headstrong character who has apparently decided to move in with her uncle in New Mexico to ‘find herself’. There’s a romantic triangle that develops between the three, and again it’s driven by the inevitability of change. Both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid at this time in their lives are at crossroads. William Bonney has something of a reputation, but he’s been taken under the wing of rancher Henry Tunstall, and is on the path to reform. The events in the story force Billy to choose between his old life and staying true to his mentor’s guidance. Pat Garrett is a buffalo hunter who says he has too much of the smell of death about him, but his path in the story takes him towards respectability.
There is enough going on in the story to give it weight and depth, but really Chisum is a fun, action packed Western with larger than life characters, and deliciously quotable dialogue. The byplay between Chisum and his right-hand-man Pepper (Ben Johnson) is a constant delight, while John Wayne delivers his lines like he’s using his fists. This Blu-ray presents the film in excellent condition, and I can see it getting played as often as that VHS tape did once upon a time. Chisum isn’t the best Western John Wayne ever made, but it is by far my favourite.