Everything goes in Wichita. Until Wyatt Earp shows up.
Wichita (1955) is the story of Wyatt Earp’s early days in the booming new cattle town where he reluctantly takes the job of Marshal and cleans the place up good, simple as that. Only it’s not so simple as there’s a lot going on, a lot to look at and a lot to think about. You get a nice rich story and a range of interesting characters in a well-paced, good looking CinemaScope picture directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Jack Elam, Mae Clarke, John Smith and many more.
After the title song by Tex Ritter plays out, the movie begins as Wyatt Earp (McCrea) meets a group of cowboys that seem friendly enough until two of them, Bridges and his brother (Rayford Barnes) try to steal McCrea’s life savings out of his pocket while he sleeps. McCrea catches them in the act, and beats them in a fair fight instead of gunning them down. He leaves for Wichita, a bustling place with buildings going up, people pouring in and the newspaperman Wallace Ford wondering how long it’ll take for rowdy cowboys to arrive, get drunk and shoot the place up. After McCrea foils a bank robbery, he’s offered the job of Marshal, but he’s not interested until those cowboys come to fulfill Ford’s prophecy and kill a child.
McCrea arrests the hooligans and is told he’s being a bit harsh by driving the whole gang of the “Big W” out of town. When he establishes a gun ban in Wichita, he’s really gone too far and draws the ire of the locals whose livelihoods depend on indulging the cattlemen and their wild behaviour. McCrea’s not much liked anymore but sticks to his guns with the help of a reporter at the paper, none other than Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen), and later gets more support by his brothers. He falls in love with Miles, daughter of one of Wichita’s VIPs and as you can guess, has to face down the vengeful Bridges and the men of the Big W again before order is firmly established.
McCrea is well cast as the “good-sized, natural born lawman” Wichita needs, a solid upstanding man of his word and the last standing with a gun. It’s true he might be a bit old for these early days of Earp but I didn’t mind that with all his other great qualities and the juicy events going on; you need someone of his gravity and experience to play this part. Despite resisting the role of lawman he seems to know he’s meant for something like it, saying that things “like this” seem to follow and happen to him wherever he goes. He doesn’t want to resort to or end things with a gun, but when circumstances push him that way he can handle himself. He just wants to be a businessman but when nobody else has the desire or qualifications to do the right thing against the threat, he just does what’s needed. There’s the story told in the film about the man who didn’t want to be a preacher until he steps in out of duty, and then fulfills his divine calling; some people have things they’re just meant to be doing.
The plot has a nice symmetry to it, with the same troublemaker (Bridges) who sets off the story coming to figure in its end, a conflict started between individuals, blown up to involve a whole town, meant to represent the forces shaping a whole society, and then focused back down on two men again once the greater conflicts are exposed and addressed. There’s the mistaking of lawmen for hired guns which is a fun twist that entraps the corrupt barkeep, but it’s also part of the commentary on how easily people confuse the value of a gun with its danger and misjudge someone who uses it. McCrea goes from being revered to reviled and back again, as the townspeople want someone to guard them from the trouble but the corrupt and inconvenienced get mad when he seems to be the one causing it. Predictably, some won’t take matters seriously until they’re personally affected, as when Miles’ mother, played by Mae Clarke, is killed and only then Wallace Coy understands what McCrea was trying to prevent with his strict rules. By the end, losses like that lead the town to get behind McCrea instead of undermining him.
As you might expect from Tourneur, Wichita looks good, with action that’s exciting and easy to follow, scenes that fill the frame, compositions that tell stories and reveal character, and colours used to great effect. McCrea gets that memorable introduction where he appears as a lone dot on the horizon and then rides in to meet the curious group of cowboys. He’s a friendly man who introduces himself with a smile and no airs but still has his eye on everything and talks down to them from horseback. Peter Graves has a neat moment (that I won’t spoil) where he faces down McCrea and he “acts” convincingly menacing. There’s a feeling of tension and dread through most of the movie, created by worries and past experience that prove to come true and repeat, as in the case of Ford’s prediction about the cowboys or the story about the preacher, or Ford’s having lost his wife to wanton shooting like Coy will lose his. We’re told what will happen, and if you watch enough westerns you know what should happen, but in a movie as layered and fascinating, one structured, acted and executed as well as Wichita, you also get much more than expected.
*thanks for the tip on this one Laura!