John Wayne Western Ethics: Just Thought I’d Mention This…

“Chisum” is a lesser effort by the Duke for sure; I saw the Western when it came out in 1970, and it made no impression on me at all, apparently. When I watched it again two days ago, almost nothing seemed familiar. There was one scene, however, that raised my eyebrows.

The story is very loosely based on John Chisum (of  Chisum Trail fame) and his involvement in the Lincoln County War of 1878 in the New Mexico Territory. At one point in the story, British rancher and Chisum’s neighbor Henry Tunstall rides to Santa Fe to seek help from Territorial Governor  Sam Axtell in the increasingly tense range war.  Henry does not know that he has been framed for cattle rustling, and when he  is intercepted by two deputies (they are in on the plot, but he doesn’t know that) who accuse him and tell him he is under arrest, he objects strenuously.  Saying he is late, Tunstall starts to reach into a pocket. One of the deputies shoots him dead. The two then plant a gun on Tunstall to back the story that the deputy fired in self defense.

But why did he have to do that? As I was watching the movie, when the Brit began to reach into his pocket I actually cried out (scaring my dog) “Don’t!” Especially in the Old West, reaching for something while resisting arrest surely would prompt a reasonable fear of bodily harm by the officers, justifying the use of deadly force in self defense. Wouldn’t it?

The Duke, playing Chisum, tracks down the two deputies, takes them into custody, and announces that they will hang for shooting an unarmed man. Chisum knows that Tunstall never carried a gun, or even owned one. They aren’t hanged, but only because they are shot by Tunstall’s friend Billy the Kid, who also shoots the crooked sheriff who sent them to arrest the squire. But I digress…

It is irrelevant that Tunstall didn’t have a gun or own one: the deputies didn’t know that. The fact that they planted the gun is problematical, but the shooting isn’t transformed into murder by what occurs afterwards. Even the fact that Tunstall was being framed and was innocent is irrelevant. He didn’t know that it was a plot when he resisted arrest, and it wouldn’t have justified drawing a gun if he had one.

As far as I can see, there is no difference whatsoever from the circumstances of poor Tunstall’s death and many of the police shootings where officers believed that they were about to be shot, but were mistaken.  Those officers have been almost always acquitted or exonerated.

Yet in 1878, if the movie is to be believed, that exact scenario would have been regarded as murder: shooting an unarmed man. Most convincing of all, John Wayne thought it was murder.

What changed since 1878? Heck, what changed since 1970?

Just thought I’d mention it…


31 thoughts on “John Wayne Western Ethics: Just Thought I’d Mention This…

  1. I’ll have more to say later. Suffice it to say, John Wayne’s effort here and his methods to push along the story are accidentally teaching bad ethics, not ethics accurate to the time (either time).

    John seems to be taking a ton of shortcuts in order to associate the deputies with the plot (without explaining this on screen), and therefore giving the omniscient audience more reason to accept the eventual killing of the deputies and John’s revenge arc.

    • Yeah, that’s what it felt like: we knew the deputies were bad, and part of the dastardly plot that caused the poor Brit to make a fatal mistake, so nobody at the time watching the film saw anything amiss. Nor was it out of sync with typical Western justice as portrayed in contemporary films and TV.

      • Westerns of that era are more about emotionalism than law, ethics, or even logic. The audience wanted to feel good about the hero, and Hollywood delivered. Movies were about escape from everyday lives.

        Hollywood today, on the other hand? Scolds, liars, and shameless hypocrites.

        • Yeah, but those movies, like all movies and TV shows, influenced the public and passed on cultural values. The Duke, more than most performers, acknowledged that role and took it very seriously, leading to his refusal to shoot a man in the back in “The Shootist” even though the man had just finished shooting him.

          • We are in violent agreement, Jack. I was not intending to imply that it was okay to pass on those values. And in retrospect, this was the starting point of the dumbing down of Americans.

  2. What changed is that if you didn’t have a gun in the 1878 frontier, something is weird about you. But you say this rancher character is British, so that can be a possible reason. In the 1970’s, if you didn’t have a gun, you’re asking for it a la “Death Wish” and “The Warriors” crime and punk infested NYC. Nowadays guns are “icky” and mean that you are pro-child murder. (Ironic that the propensity towards anti-gun would highly correlate with propensity towards pro-choice. My conjecture based on anecdotal experience)

    • Related to not wearing guns is this groundbreaking scene from the movie Unforgiven.
      From the synopsis of

      Munny (Clint Eastwood) enters the saloon, where most of the townsmen have gathered. He asks who owns the establishment, and when Skinny identifies himself, Munny tells the men near him to move away, and then shoots him. Little Bill calls him a coward for shooting an unarmed man, but Munny replies, “He should have armed himself, if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

  3. Clearly the scriptwriters had some personal point of view to communicate to the audience because the whole story had little to do with what actually happened, other than to put some familiar names to the characters in the cast and very loosely base it on actual events. As with another film, the much celebrated “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” they used present day 1970’s value systems to frame events that happened some 100 years ago. Certainly it’s sort of a comfort food type of entertainment, but a better ethics lesson would have been for them to at least tell the story with some values from the time period portrayed. No movie is ever historically accurate, but those two were particularly badly portrayed. Poor Mr Tunstall was ambushed out in the bushes and murdered in cold blood. He was herding cattle at the time.

    • Also Mr Tunstall was only 24 years old when murdered and it irks me no end when he is portrayed as an elderly gentleman. He and Billy Bonney were closer to peers than Tunstall being some older mentor to “The Kid”.

  4. Actually, I remember a similar (even more extreme) plot point from an episode of Dragnet. Of course, I saw it when I was about 10, so I might have it wrong, but for some reason this is the one episode I mostly remember.

    Joe was off duty at a laundromat, and someone tried to break into a change dispenser. The robber drew a gun and fired at Joe and Joe returned fire and killed him. But when forensics investigated, they couldn’t find the bullet that the robber shot. The implication I got as a kid was that Joe would be in Big Trouble if they couldn’t prove the robber shot at him, and that the audience (and within the narrative, Gannon) were offended at the idea that an officer like Joe Friday would shoot first.

    (They found the bullet behind a shelf it had lifted slightly, leaving a line they mistook for a carpenters mark. Don’t ask me, I didn’t write it.)

    I bring it up to point out that, like John Wayne movies, Dragnet was hardly known for a liberal agenda, but they also seemed to assume that it wasn’t enough that an officer believe that his life was in danger. (Unless it was because he was off duty?)

    • Wave a gun (or something that looks like it thinks it might be a gun, like a cell phone) at an armed man, and you may get shot. If you get shot, you may die. Natural consequences.

      TV has dumbed down their audience byu using a gun as less of a threat that somehow okay to brandish. Just showing a gun can be a felony, in the eyes of the law.

      Point a gun at me, I will assume you will use it, and treat you accordingly.

  5. What I recall of the movie is a pretty hilarious fight between Wayne and villain Forrest Tucker at the end of the movie.

    Because they have knowledge of the plot, aren’t the deputies essentially kidnapping the Englishman? It doesn’t sit right that they would have a reasonable right to defend themselves against their victim.

    • But the law says otherwise. That’s almost the Zimmerman-Martin scenario. Zimmerman was at least partly responsible for the confrontation, but once Martin threatened him, he had a right to defend himself.

      • What was Zimmerman doing that was unlawful?

        Also, if memory serves, the idea that it was unlawful to resist an unlawful arrest is a fairly recent idea, that probably wouldn’t have applied at that time, in that era.

        • Zimmerman was at least partly responsible for the confrontation

          Funny, I don’t read that as suggesting any illegality.

          As for the second point, the observation in the post was entirely about law officer shooting a suspect who reached into a pocket. It wasn’t about the right to resist arrest. That’s an interesting point if true, but irrelevant.

          • It’s hardly irrelevant of the person doing the shooting is engaged in unlawful activity and the person resisting is not. That’s also why unlawful conduct comes into play in the Zimmerman case. Most state laws I know of do not allow a person engaged in unlawful aggression against another to defend himself against resistance to that unlawful aggression, at least not until they’ve tried to end the fight by other means.

              • But there IS law (in Texas) around starting the incident and escalating to where you kill the one you provoked, regardless of your self defense rights. You started it, and don’t have a right to kill when thing don’t go your way. This stops someone picking a fight just to kill their target, then say it was ‘self defense.’

                Of course, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries are all going to determine if you can use self defense give the situation. But the standard taught in citizens academies and carry classes is ‘no self defense if you provoked.’

                • Not contradicting you (because I don’t know), but do you have a citation on that law in Texas? That argument was often used by commenters on the Zimmerman case, but FL law (and I think many others) allows even the initial instigator of a conflict to use even deadly force if the other party is threatening their life. Granted, it could be tricky to sort out, but the idea is that even if you start an argument, you don’t subsequently lose your right to self defense have to just lie back and let someone kill you.

                • Those laws involve starting fights, however. Arresting someone, rightly or not, doesn’t count, and neither does following someone you think is a prowler. Find the statute and give us the link, and we’ll go through it. “You made me try to kill you” has a very, very limited application.

  6. Well, as fate would have it, we now have THIS incident to play with. The usual suspects (Sharpton, et al.) have gathed to feed on and stoke the upcoming frenzy.

    To tie this to your other recent posts about unethical reporting, the recent synopsis of this incident I heard on NPR consisted of “unarmed black man shot by police” and coverage of protests, with none of the other attendant, and relevant, information.

    • Yeah, they neglected the whole running from the cops through people’s backyards part, which is kind of important in understanding why the cops were on edge….

Leave a Reply to Emily Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.