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.