“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…