Some years ago I ran a short series of pieces on the various representations of Wyatt Earp in the movies*. I covered almost all the major productions, but one – Wichita (1955) – was omitted for the simple reason that I won’t ever write about a film which I haven’t had the opportunity to view recently. Well, now’s the time to fill in a notable gap in the aforementioned series. For a character whose name has become such an iconic part of the history and mythology of the old west, there is a good deal of variation when it comes to assessment of his motives. While some writers have sought to build up the man’s legend, others have dedicated their efforts to chipping away at it, and then there’s always the stories that Earp himself chose to spin. Despite the diversity of opinion on Earp in literature, I think it’s safe to say that cinema has, for the most part, chosen to cast him in a heroic mold. The historical veracity of those pictures where his character played a prominent part may be open to question, but there can be no doubt that Earp provided filmmakers with a rock solid basis for their portrayals of tough, unflinching lawmen.
Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) is introduced a man hoping to start up business in the burgeoning cow town/railhead of Wichita, Kansas. Two early scenes, one involving a couple of light-fingered cowboys and another depicting a foiled bank raid (where Sam Peckinpah appears uncredited as the teller), make it abundantly clear that Earp is a man skilled in the use of firearms. However, for all his adept gunplay, he has no interest in wearing a badge and using his talents to enforce the law. Wichita is shown to be a town facing something of a dilemma; the railroad is attracting the big cattle outfits and the money that they bring with them, but the town’s also faced with the challenge of lawlessness. Hard men who have spent long weeks riding dusty trails, deprived of liquor and female company, are only too eager to spend their earnings and blow off steam. Everyone of influence in Wichita knows what’s going to happen as soon as the first big cattle drive arrives. These town elders are anxious to fully exploit the financial gains, but they also need someone strong and reliable to ensure that some semblance of law and order is maintained too. Earp would appear to be the natural choice but, as the newspaper editor (Wallace Ford) points out, he hasn’t yet come to terms with his calling in life. It’s only after a child is killed by a stray bullet that Earp bows to the inevitable and pins on a badge.
The script doesn’t concern itself too much with the documented facts – having Earp team up with a fresh young reporter by the name of Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen) for example – but it does give at least a grudging nod in their direction. In reality, Earp finally left Wichita after political disagreements and headed for Dodge City to make money in some questionable ventures. The film ends with our hero setting off for Dodge in order to continue along what’s claimed to be his destined path as a dedicated peace officer. And the political disputes, albeit of an entirely different nature, do form a significant part of the plot. The script sees Earp come into conflict with the business interests in Wichita, men who are prepared to turn a blind eye to violence as long as the dollars keep rolling in. While some people may try to tell you that Hollywood productions of the 50s were generally right-wing in perspective, I’ve never seen too much evidence of that. Wichita is yet another film that champions basic morality above any narrow political consideration.
Wichita is very fine film, where both visuals and theme vie for the viewer’s attention. All of the great directors had the ability to move with ease between genres, and Jacques Tourneur was no exception. Having made what I have no hesitation in referring to as masterpieces in the horror and noir fields, he went on to prove that he was equally at home with westerns. Wichita was shot in scope and Tourneur handles the wide lens beautifully throughout. The opening, which highlights the vast open spaces of the frontier, quickly draws the eye to a tiny speck, a lone figure off on the horizon. This is the first view of Wyatt Earp, a fine visual introduction for a character who remains resolutely apart from the milieu throughout the film. Now that’s a considerable feat in my book, encapsulating the essence and core of a character through the use of one long shot. A good deal of the action in Wichita takes place in interiors, and again Tourneur employs the scope camera to great effect, altering angles to highlight the dominance and physicality of McCrea, to create a sense of chaos or remoteness as required, and generally positioning his actors within the frame in such a way as to focus on the emotional relationships between them. All of this, along with a strong sense of pacing, marks out the work of a top flight director.
With regard to theme, I’ve already mentioned the political sensibilities, but there’s more going on than that. The best classic westerns dealt with the internal struggles of their heroes, men trying to come to an understanding with themselves and to decide on the right path to follow. The Wyatt Earp of Wichita faces this eternal dilemma too, but with the added complication of unavoidable destiny thrown into the mix. Time and again the script makes reference to men being unable sidestep or ignore the responsibilities that fate has laid before them. If one bears in mind that Earp ultimately chooses to pursue what’s morally right then the picture has an uplifting quality. However, it’s not quite so simplistic; in order to fulfill his destiny the hero must do things that offend him personally. I think the minimalist artwork used for the poster sums up that aspect very well – a hunched, regretful figure, full of remorse in his moment of triumph, surveying the body of his slain opponent.
Joel McCrea was an excellent piece of casting as Earp. He may not bear any physical resemblance to the man but both his size and commanding presence ensure he dominates the picture. McCrea was one of the top half-dozen western stars, a man who simply belonged in the genre. He often brought a good deal of warmth to his characterizations, though his role in Wichita sacrifices that to an extent in order to play up other qualities. His Earp is a man who’s not quite satisfied with himself, a reluctant hero whose awareness of his deadly skills pains him. He communicates the dour, steely nature of his character well, and leaves no doubt in our minds as to why this man held such a fearsome reputation. Vera Miles was cast as the romantic interest, and she’s fine given the limitations of her role. The film isn’t a romance so Miles has few dramatic opportunities. Under the right circumstances, she was a very good actress – something like Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man should offer ample evidence – but she’s never stretched here. Lloyd Bridges and Edgar Buchanan played the main villains, the former as a vengeful cowhand and the latter as a conniving, duplicitous businessman, and provide solid opposition to McCrea. The supporting cast is filled with plenty of familiar faces: Peter Graves, Carl Benton Reid, Robert J Wilke, Wallace Ford, and the ever dependable Jack Elam.
Wichita is available as part of the Warner Archive in the US, but I recently picked up a release from La Casa del Cine in Spain that pairs the film with The Oklahoman. Both movies come on their own discs and Wichita looks very good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print seems to be in excellent shape, without significant damage and boasting solid colours. There are no extra features offered but the two movies can be had for less than 5 Euro. Spanish subtitles are removable via the setup menu, however, I did notice that they seem to be burnt in during the opening credits for Tex Ritter’s theme song, and there’s a brief instance of a sign being similarly translated. I think this is an exceptionally good movie, intelligently scripted, beautifully directed by Tourneur and featuring a strong central performance by McCrea. Check this one out.
*Other films featuring the character of Wyatt Earp: