Monday, April 4, 2011

WICHITA (1955)

The 1950s were the golden age of the Hollywood western, but that's because the decade's filmmakers specialized in certain kinds of westerns. It was the age of the "adult" or "psychological" western that focused on personalities under the existential pressures of frontier life. Actors like James Stewart, Randolph Scott and even John Wayne played protagonists who were far from paragons of virtue, and often stepped close to the line dividing law from outlaw. By comparison, the archetype of the "town tamer" seemed old hat. Few of the decade's best westerns were about men cleaning up tough or wide-open towns. When the topic came up, the town-tamer was often portrayed with bitter irony, like Scott's thwarted avenger in Budd Boetticher's Decision at Sundown or Henry Fonda's mercenary marshal in Edward Dmytryk's Warlock. The town tamer survived the decade, however, in the burgeoning mythology surrounding the life of Wyatt Earp. Dead less than thirty years when Jacques Tourneur's movie was released, Earp would be lionized as the "brave, courageous and bold" hero of a TV series, while his deeds were sung ad nauseum by Frankie Laine on the soundtrack of the John Sturges blockbuster Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wichita deals with Earp's time as marshal in the Kansas town, when he was in his mid-twenties -- about half the age of the actor playing him, Joel McCrea. The story's grounded in an actual event, when Earp led a group of citizens who repelled a gang of drunken cowboys who tried to storm into Wichita on a collective bender. Around this authentic and ultimately nonviolent episode Tourneur and writer Daniel B. Ullman weave a town-taming fantasy that seems more overtly political in its context today than it probably did back in the Fifties.

As in history, Earp arrives in Wichita after spending some time as a buffalo hunter. On his way in, he camps overnight with a band of cowboys driving cattle toward the town. Everyone seems sociable enough, but one of the cowboys (Lloyd Bridges) tries to steal Wyatt's roll of bills while he sleeps. Earp catches him in the act, but the cattle boss Wallace (Walter Sande) makes the men settle their difference with fists rather than guns. Earp prevails, of course, and rides ahead into town. The town is more than welcoming to the cowboys, boasting that "Everything Goes in Wichita." One dissenting voice is the local newspaper editor (Wallace Ford), who lost his wife to a random shot in a previous cowboy binge. Earp intends to start a business in town (probably not the sort the real Earp might open) but when he thwarts a bank robbery the city fathers offer him the marshal's job. He's reluctant at first; his courage isn't in doubt, but he isn't too keen on being a target for every crazy gunman who rides into town. As the cowboys grow predictably out of control and another innocent is killed by random gunfire, Wyatt overcomes his reservations and accepts the star. With the help of crusading young reporter Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen) he rounds up the most rambunctious cowboys and ultimately arresting Wallace for threatening him. Earp warns the worst of them out of Wichita and issues a directive: no one is allowed to wear their guns inside of town limits.

This policy is identified with Earp in other films, most noticeably in Anthony Mann's Winchester 73, in which Wyatt (Will Geer) confiscates all weapons not needed for the film's opening shooting contest. In Wichita, many of the town fathers react to Earp's order with horror. These elders, including the father of Wyatt's girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles playing a completely fictional character), worry that the edict will keep the cowboys out of town and ruin the town's economy. Most opposed is Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan), who sees no alternative to killing Earp to save the town. Unfortunately for him, the two tough men who respond to his clandestine solicitation prove to be Wyatt's brothers. The mixup results in Wyatt throwing Black out of town. Doc seeks revenge by having Earp assassinated, but Laurie's mother gets shot instead. The Earps and Masterson kill two of Wallace's cowboys who did the deed, and the rest of Wallace's crew, including the vengeful Bridges character, descend upon Wichita to destroy it, Earp or both....

Edgar Buchanan takes aim.
Wichita has an old-fashioned feel compared to the sleek starkness of Boetticher's westerns or the outdoor expressionism of Mann's. I can't really judge Jacques Tourneur's visual sense because I saw a "Starz Play" pan-and-scan stream at Netflix, but a properly proportioned edition is available through the Warner Archive. In any event, this isn't really an outdoor film, and as a town-tamer story it doesn't really have to be. As I noted earlier, Joel McCrea is way too old for Earp at this stage of his life, but he provides the gravitas the producers obviously desired in spite of history. If anyone steals the picture, it's Edgar Buchanan playing a progressively more loathsome character.

Ironically, town tamer films had some subversive potential, even during the conformist, McCarthyite 1950s. Wichita milks much of its drama from the fact that, as far as some rich and powerful people are concerned, town taming can be bad for business. There's a hint of a similar idea in at least one other Fifties western, Robert D. Webb's The Proud Ones, where Robert Ryan's law-enforcement efforts are resented by many townspeople who fear a similar effect on their local economy. What did Fifties audiences take away from tales in which businessmen tolerate and even cultivate corruption if they can make money from it? I'm not sure. On another issue, I have a gut feeling that Wichita's original audiences reacted to its spotlighting of Earp's gun-control measures, which would probably have made the film controversial were it released now, without batting an eye. "Gun control" simply wasn't a hot-button or ideological issue in 1955, as far as I know. I don't mean to suggest that everyone then would be against the NRA today. It's more likely that people didn't even think about the topic, that few people if any worried either about a proliferation of guns (except maybe among street gangs) or about the government taking their guns away. Confiscating guns didn't make Wyatt Earp a fascist or a commie in their eyes; it made him a town tamer. The funny thing is that more people nowadays probably think their own towns need taming, but wouldn't think of adopting Earp's methods. Wichita is probably more interesting to me as an almost ahistorical artifact than as a work of drama or art. It lacks the subtlety of character of the best Fifties westerns as well as the powerful visuals -- and its history is mostly bunk. But the story is engaging enough and it's fun to see actors like Bridges and Buchanan play heels. If it seems mediocre to me it's because I can't help judging it by the highest standard set by its contemporaries.

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