Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, it was adapted for the screen by Andrew J. Fenady from his short story, "Chisum and the Lincoln County Cattle War".
Although this movie is historically inaccurate in many details, it is loosely based on events and characters from the Lincoln County War of 1878 in the New Mexico Territory, which involved historical figures John Chisum, (1824-1884), Pat Garrett (1850-1908), and Billy the Kid (1859-1881), [William H. Bonney] among others.
John Chisum (John Wayne), a virtuous, patriarchal land baron, locks horns with greedy Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker), who will stop at nothing to get control of the trade and even the law in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory.
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.
The story begins with Murphy's men tipping off Mexican rustlers who plan to steal Chisum's horses. Chisum and his sidekick Pepper (Ben Johnson) stop the bandits with help from a newcomer to the area, William H. Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), also known as "Billy the Kid". A notorious killer, Billy has been given a chance to reform by Chisum's philanthropic Britisher neighbor, rancher Henry Tunstall (Patric Knowles). Billy also falls for Chisum's newly arrived niece, Sallie (Pamela McMyler).
Murphy is buying up all the stores in town and using his monopoly to push up the prices. He appoints his own county sheriff and deputies. He also brings in a lawyer, Alexander McSween (Andrew Prine), whose principles lead him to switch sides and seek work with Chisum and Tunstall. The two ranchers set up their own bank and general store in town under McSween's control.
Chisum's land and cattle remain targets. Murphy's men attempt to steal Chisum's cattle before he can sell them to the United States Army. Chisum's ranch hands are warned by Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett), a passing buffalo hunter. Garrett agrees to help Chisum and soon befriends Bonney. Together they foil an attack by Murphy's men on the wagons bringing in provisions for the new store.
Fed up with Murphy's underhanded activities, British rancher Henry Tunstall rides off to Santa Fe to seek the intervention of Territorial Gov. Sam Axtell (Alan Baxter). On the way he is intercepted by Murphy's deputies, who falsely accuse him of cattle rustling and shoot him dead. Chisum and Garrett hunt down the deputies and bring them back to town for trial. Bonney, seeking revenge for the murder of his mentor and skeptical that the men will truly face justice in town, overpowers Garrett by surprise and shoots dead both deputies. Before corrupt Sheriff Brady (Bruce Cabot) can organise a posse, Billy rides into town and kills him, too.
Murphy appoints bounty hunter Dan Nodeen (Christopher George) 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's plans for revenge are only just beginning. He 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.
Chisum is alerted by McSween's wife (Lynda Day George) and rides into town with his ranch hands. The main street is blocked, so Chisum stampedes his cattle through the barricades. He tracks down Murphy and takes him on in a fist fight which ends with both men falling from a balcony. Murphy ends up impaled on steer horns. With his paymaster dead, Nodeen flees, with Billy in pursuit.
The film ends with Garrett taking over as sheriff and it is implied that is settling down with Sallie. It is learned that famous U.S. Army General Lew Wallace has become governor of the territory. With law and order restored, Chisum can resume his iconic vigil over the Pecos valley.
Michael A. Wayne, executive producer, took on the project of making Chisum because he felt the story summed up well his father's political views. The sizeable cast is packed with familiar faces from earlier John Wayne films, as well as friends such as Forrest Tucker.
It was filmed in 1969 in Durango, Mexico. The picturesque vistas of the area were captured by cinematographer William H. Clothier.
The film was originally made for 20th Century Fox, but they sold the film to Warner Bros.
John Wayne was on the set of Chisum when he heard of his nomination for an Academy Award in 1970 for True Grit.
The song "The Ballad of John Chisum" was narrated by William Conrad, the song "Turn Me Around" was sung by Merle Haggard.
During filming, John Mitchum, brother of Robert, introduced John Wayne to his patriotic poetry. Seeing that Wayne was greatly moved by those words, Forrest Tucker suggested that the two collaborate to record some of the poetry, which resulted in a Grammy-nominated spoken-word album, America: Why I Love Her.
Chisum re-united several actors from Sands of Iwo Jima including John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker and Richard Jaeckel.
Released in June 1970, the film grossed $6 million at the box office.
U.S. President Richard Nixon commented on the film during a press conference in Denver, Colorado, on 3 August 1970. In doing so, he used the film as a context to explain his views on law and order:
Over the last weekend I saw a movie–I don't see too many movies but I try to see them on weekends when I am at the Western White House or in Florida–and the movie that I selected, or, as a matter of fact, my daughter Tricia selected it, was "Chisum" with John Wayne. It was a western. And as I looked at that movie, I said, "Well, it was a very good western, John Wayne is a very fine actor and it was: a fine supporting cast. But it was just basically another western, far better than average movies, better than average westerns."
I wondered why it is that the western survives year after year after year. A good western will outdraw some of the other subjects. Perhaps one of the reasons, in addition to the excitement, the gun play, and the rest, which perhaps is part of it but they can get that in other kinds of movies but one of the reasons is, perhaps, and this may be a square observation–is that the good guys come out ahead in the westerns; the bad guys lose.
In the end, as this movie particularly pointed out, even in the old West, the time before New Mexico was a State, there was a time when there was no law. But the law eventually came, and the law was important from the standpoint of not only prosecuting the guilty, but also seeing that those who were guilty had a proper trial.
Andrew McLaglen called the film one of his favourites. "I wanted Billy the Kid to just be Billy the Kid, a human being, not a bad little boy. Fenady was sort of a scholar about the Lincoln County Cattle War, which was a conflict over water and cattle—trading cattle—and John Chisum actually became a very powerful landowner. It was an American story."
Warner Home Video released Chisum for the first time on Blu-ray on June 7, 2016.