Wichita

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:

Frontier Marshal

My Darling Clementine

Winchester 73

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Cheyenne Autumn

Hour of the Gun

Tombstone

Wyatt Earp

53 thoughts on “Wichita

  1. “Men still talk of the Marshal of Wichita…and today it’s a very nice town”. That line from Ritter’s theme song always made me chuckle! “Wichita” is indeed a fine western and one I always enjoy. The only small criticism I have of the film is that its presentation of McCrea as an incredbily proper and highly moral man is slightly overbaked at times. This was, of course, a natural part of the McCrea screen persona but I always felt that it worked better when there was an occasional blemish on show (like in “Colorado Territory” for example) or when some world-weariness had set in (“Ride The High Country”). But this is a very small matter and does not detract from a good and literate example of a 1950s Scope western.
    I was interested to read your comments on the Spanish set which also contains “The Oklahoman”. I must confess that I went over to the dark side here and ordered the MOD U.S. version a few years ago. (I know! I’m sorry. I’m ashamed. I was young and didn’t know any better!!:). It’s a good print but I would like a ‘proper’ version of “Wichita” in my collection without the risk of it turning into a coaster in a few years. What is the version of “The Oklahoman” like?
    Thanks for the review Colin.

    • Hi Dafydd. The film does paint a very sanitized picture of Earp, but that was pretty much the case with most movies presenting him as the central character. There is a very oblique visual reference to his involvement in gambling near the beginning, but that’s about it.

      The Spanish DVD set is this one. The transfer of The Oklahoman looks very good to me, anamorphic scope and of a similar standard to Wichita. Considering the price, I’d say that even if you have one of the films the set still represents excellent value.

    • Michael, I have no hesitation recommending this film from whatever source is most convenient and/or economical.
      There’s really no such thing as a bad Joel McCrea western, and when you have a director as talented as Tourneur behind the camera it’s hard to go wrong.

  2. This sounds really great – I’ve never seen it before but am at least familiar with the versions made by Sturges, Ford, Kasdan and (jointly, apparently) Pan Cosmatos and Kurt Russell and found good things in all of these in their own very different ways. I’ve gone right ahead and ordered this one on Amazon as I really like Tourneur and McCrea – thanks as always Colin.

  3. Bit of an aside, but, by weird coincidence, just yesterday I was writing a review of Tombstone and referenced your series on Wyatt Earp movies! Must say, I didn’t realise it had been so long.

    • Thanks very much Chris. As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t really any bad McCrea westerns, are there? Having said that, Wichita is right up there among his best.

  4. Hi Colin,
    upon first opening your review of “Witicha” I was most impressed with the poster. To my mind, it promised an interesting approach to the Western genre, particularily as Jacques Tourneur was the Director.

    As you have mentioned, this poster and its “minimalist artwork” sums up Earp’s moral dilemma extremely well. Because of its insight into this film, I considered that , perhaps Jacques or even his father, the veteran Film Director, Maurice Tourneur, who had an extensive earlier career in the visual arts, (particularily as a designer of posters and textiles), provided some imput .

    Maybe it was Jacques Tourneur’s European heritage that enabled him to approach the Western from a different aspect. In any case, his ” three film association” with Joel McCrea, (whom, I believe, had the ideal persona for Westerns), gave audiences much to enjoy.

    Thanks for the post and the series of the various representations of “Wyatt Earp in the Movies”- most interesting.

    • Hi Rod. Poster and promotional art can sometimes be misleading and draw attention to peripheral elements of a movie. The simplicity of the art for Wichita is very effective though – both striking and highly appropriate. I have no idea who was involved in the design but that’s a lovely theory/hypothesis anyway.

      Some of the European directors did bring an interesting perspective to the westerns they made – I find Fritz Lang’s three efforts fascinating. Of course the genre itself has that expansive quality that not only accommodates but also welcomes a variety of approaches.

  5. Excellent piece and the movie sure deserves it. This was one I liked but had to reserve an opinion on to some extent because I’d never had a chance to see it in Scope until the Warner Archive version (by the way, Dayffd, what’s wrong with ordering from Warner Archive–haven’t they been a godsend with a lot of titles?). And that really lifted it for me–it’s so beautifully composed.

    Tourneur indeed mastered all those genres and perhaps a couple of others too (for example, there’s ANNE OF THE INDIES). But I’d just add his first Western, CANYON PASSAGE, arguably the best of his Westerns and they are all fine, was made before OUT OF THE PAST. I didn’t look to see if you’d covered this yet.

    Anyway, a lot of good to great Wyatt Earp movies and this is one of the best. Joel McCrea’s understated though quietly forceful style was perfectly suited to Tourneur, as their other two films show as well (STARS IN MY CROWN and STRANGER ON HORSEBACK). The two men were apparently good friends.

    • Blake, this movie really needs to be seen in the correct format, though I guess that applies to all scope films too. The compositions are all excellent and playing around with them would badly disrupt the whole rhythm of the movie.

      Although I haven’t written anything on it, I agree Canyon Passage is a terrific film. It was the first Tourneur western I saw, having become familiar with the director via his Lewton films along with Night of the Demon and Out of the Past. He seemed to take to the genre immediately and, though I’ve yet to see Stars in My Crown, produced some top quality work.

  6. Thanks for info on double bill of WICHITA and THE OKLAHOMAN. I’ve just ordered them on Spanish Amazon site. I had no idea that being registered on one Amazon sites means you are registered on all. The layout is identical so it is easy to follow the ordering procedure.

    • Yes, once you’re registered all your details seem to be stored centrally so the same sign-in works across all the international sites. It certainly takes the pain out of ordering from different territories.

  7. P.P.P.P.P.S. All sorted – have ordered THE TAMARIND SEED instead! Am getting the WA DVD-R of CAREY and Amazon tells me my WICHITA disc is also now on its way – I’m exhausted from all that spending! Thanks again amigo.

    • Phew! Big sigh of relief here! I really hate giving out duff info that could cause potential problems. Glad you got it all sorted out though.

      P.S. Let me know what you think of Wichita when you get it and see it.

  8. Great review, Colin! This one sounds like a top tier 50s western. I too haven’t seen this one yet, but as a big fan of McCrea in general and in cowboy mode in particular, I’ll be on the lookout for it. I’m also curious to see Tourneur’s take on the western genre…I own CANYON PASSAGE but haven’t got around to viewing it yet, and I’ve also never seen WAY OF A GAUCHO (is this one even available on DVD?) or STRANGER ON HORSEBACK either. I HAVE seen all the other Wyatt Earp related films you covered earlier, and am glad to see you add WICHITA to the list. Thanks for the info on the very affordable Spanish disc.

    By the way, have you seen STARS IN MY CROWN? Not a western per se, more of a drama, but it sounds intriguing. It’s another one on my (long) Warner Archive wishlist.

    • Jeff, Tourneur worked very well within the western genre and made some very good films. If you have a copy of Canyon Passage, then I recommend breaking it open and viewing it as soon as possible – it’s terrific.

      Way of a Gaucho is certainly available on DVD; Fox released it in Spain a couple of years ago and more recently in the US as part of their MOD programme. I haven’t seen Stars in My Crown but I’ve heard lots of good things about it.

  9. Jeff, STARS IN MY CROWN is perhaps marginal as a Western but related enough (in presence of McCrea as well as setting, themes) to be considered with Tourneur’s other Westerns, the same as with WAY OF A GAUCHO, which has an Argentinian setting but a story with so much in common with many Westerns of the period. And these are both beautiful films.

    The one Tourneur Western not mentioned is GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, which is, again, excellent. Not to be monotonous about it, but I must admit I love Tourneur, his subtle, graceful style, understatement, and rich and beautiful compositions serving so many movies over a range of genres. His films are mostly kind of humble, non-prestigious productions (maybe all of them, no matter what people say about Val Lewton movies and OUT OF THE PAST now) but they are almost always so much more in realization.

    You do have something to look forward to with CANYON PASSAGE. Colin is right–get the DVD out and get it out its cover and watch it and I’m guessing you won’t be sorry. Meantime, Colin, the same goes for you with STARS IN MY CROWN; any reason to wait?–Tourneur liked this best of all his movies.

    • For myself Blake, I can only say that I’ve yet to pick up a copy of Stars in My Crown, but it is on my list. With much of Tourneur’s work now available on DVD, Great Day in the Morning remains a notable absence – it would be wonderful to see it make an appearance somewhere.

  10. Funny detail : you can recognize a (very) young Sam Peckinpah playing the part of a bank clerk in “Wichita”. Watch closely the sequence of the bank robbery. Behind the desk, hands up, hair parted in the middle, dark clothes, a moustache, he doesn’t pronounce a single word but that’s him actually.
    Besides, I do agree with the general appreciation of Jacques Tourneur as a director. “Canyon Passage”, “Out of the Past”, “Nightfall”, “Curse of the Demon”, not to mention the rightly famed RKO Val Lewton trilogy of the early forties. All of these movie are either true masterpieces or very close to being so. Very fine review, Colin. As usual.

    • Thanks Samuel. I did briefly mention Sam Peckinpah’s appearance, but it is interesting to see him share the screen here with McCrea, whom he would go on to direct a few years later.

  11. Pingback: Tombstone (1993) | 100 Films in a Year

    • Thanks for that. Personally, I really like McCrea’s work, especially in westerns. I think he brought a human and authoritative quality, and fits very well in Wichita where he’s playing a character like Earp.

  12. Pingback: The Oklahoman | Riding the High Country

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