Wichita (1955)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*thanks for the tip on this one Laura!

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12 thoughts on “Wichita (1955)”

  1. Joel,like Randolph Scott and Gary Cooper, really was perfect for westerns. Must watch it again.

    1. Yes good names, all. Looked good in suits but totally at home in the West. McCrea did well with the stoic heroes like this. So great to watch. Thanks for reading!

  2. So glad I could recommend this one, Kristina! It’s a special movie and I’ll be revisiting it before too long.

    “scenes that fill the frame, compositions that tell stories and reveal character, and colours used to great effect. ”

    What a great description of Tourneur’s magic. I’ve come to appreciate him so much in recen years. I especially like that phrase about compositions. This is a beautifully staged movie.

    “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.”

    Exactly. One of the things I love about Westerns is there tend to be a few standard stories we see over and over, such as the lawman cleaning up the town. But it’s the endless variations within that, what different filmmakers and actors do with the familiar tales, which is part of what makes the genre so interesting.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Yes exactly, like mysteries, you have the set rules and the structures and then the creativity is what’s done with it. In this case all that basic stuff works so nicely and then there are the deeper things you can go on about, like the symmetry and arcs, many things foreshadowed and then fulfilled. And you can’t beat this huge cast. Liked it a lot, thanks for the push to check it out.

  3. Great movie and well written-up here. Between them, McCrea and Tourneur do wonderful work and the result is a film that’s compellingly played and beautifully shot.
    Tourneur’s compositions are as good as they get, never crowding out the wide angles but using them subtly and fully integrating them as a storytelling device.

    1. Thanks– there is surely much more to look at and say about those nice compositions but the artistry of the movie is that you don’t even think about them at first, they’re so natural. Also with it being Tourneur’s first (I think) in CinemaScope it must have been fun for him to fill that space and think of the ways to arrange people and things with meaning. Definitely a movie that works on a simple entertaining level and one that you can go back to, to discover all the filmmaking magic. Very much enjoyed it.

      1. I agree, and that’s why I mentioned the subtlety of Tourneur. He does marvelous things with the camera but not in a showy or distracting way; you kind of become aware that you’re watching a great artist at work almost incidentally.

  4. Nice to see all the love for this one; it deserves it! (and being fond of John Smith of “Laramie,” it was nice to see him as Wyatt’s other brother.)

    I’ve heard that the Tex Ritter theme song was reused later on the short lived “Wichita Town,” starring Joel McCrea and his son Jody, but I’ve never seen the show so I don’t know for sure.

    1. That’s neat about the song and also how cool is it that McCrea plays Wyatt here and then also Bat Masterson a few years later? Loved how the Earp brothers make their entrance, shows you what a deep cast it is here, that two good actors like that come in so late into the movie. Thanks for reading!

      1. Oh yes, I had forgotten all about that! And it’s funny, Bob Wilke plays a character here named Ben Thompson, bearing little relation to the historical person, but Walter Coy would later show up in “Gunfight at Dodge City” as Ben *Townsend,* a character more obviously inspired by Thompson.

        I agree, a great cast all around! And Joel, Peter, and John made a pretty convincing set of brothers; more so than some other onscreen-siblings … maybe because they were all fair-haired, tall, lean, and, of course, handsome?;-)

  5. I second what Laura said about your fine description of the qualities of Tourneur’s direction. I was going to do the same thing. And glad that Colin chimed in. I think we all appreciate he is no ordinary director and composes with exceptional expressiveness as well as beauty. And he never bludgeons you with anything. Of course, he and McCrea are perfect for each other.

    Also agree about Westerns ringing variations on familiar themes. It’s a real measure of art to be fresh in doing this as it so often is in the hands of creative people. They find their individual artistry within a rich tradition.

    An excellent piece on an exceptional movie. When it turned up in a nice transfer for the CinemaScope images, it was a godsend for me and glad I have now to go back to that way again.

    1. Thanks very much, there is more to be said and seen on further viewings of this because I got so caught up in the story that I thought I missed some visuals but they were so much a part of the “story” that shots still stuck in my head were indeed noticed. Something I forgot to mention was Tourneur’s matter of fact depiction of the violence as the cowboys shoot up the town and kill the boy. After Wallace Ford’s predictions you know something like that will happen so it doesn’t need extra dramatics. Thanks again for reading.

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