(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriter: Daniel B. Ullman; cinematographer: Harold Lipstein; editor: William Austin; music: Hans J. Salter; cast: Joel McCrea (Wyatt Earp), Vera Miles (Laurie McCoy), Lloyd Bridges (Gyp Clements), Wallace Ford (Arthur Whiteside), Edgar Buchanan (Doc Black), Peter Graves (Morgan Earp), Keith Larsen (Bat Masterson), Carl Benton Reid (Mayor Andrew Hoke), John Smith (Jim Earp), Walter Coy (Sam McCoy), Robert J. Wilke (Ben Thompson), Walter Sande (Clint Wallace), Jack Elam (Al Mann), Mae Clarke (Mary Elizabeth McCoy), Rayford Barnes (Hal Clements); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walter Mirisch; Allied Artists; 1955)
“This superb Western, one of the best ever made, is not only enjoyable but is thought-provoking.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jacques Tourneur’s (“I Walked With A Zombie”/”Cat People”) first film in CinemaScope is a great traditionalist Western classic. It’s enhanced by the sterling hard-hitting performance of Joel McCrea, the stylish no-nonsense directing combined with Daniel B. Ullman’s intelligent and action-packed script, while its authenticity is somewhat ensured as Wyatt Earp’s biographer Stuart N. Lake acted as the film’s technical adviser and allowed the loose interpretation of Wyatt’s law officer stint in the Wichita of 1874-76 to pass muster (he wasn’t a marshal back then as portrayed in the film). The film’s unassuming nature hides its powerhouse punches it takes at authority figures who advocate law-and-order until it interferes with their business interests and also points out the slender margin of difference there is between a gunslinger and a gun toting lawman. Though ending on an upbeat note, with Marshal Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) taming Wichita and moving next with his new bride to clean up Dodge City, there’s still the pessimism that abounds around the law being so dependent on the honesty of the law enforcers and its leading citizens, and on which way the wind is blowing. This superb Western, one of the best ever made, is not only enjoyable but is thought-provoking.
Wyatt arrives with a fistful of money from his days as a buffalo hunter into a wide open Wichita, a booming town due to the new railroad. Upon entering town, Wyatt is greeted with a banner proclaiming “Everything Goes in Wichita.” The handy man with a gun hopes to take advantage of the town’s new wealth to open some kind of legitimate business, but definitely not another saloon. When he foils a bank robbery, the town’s leading businessman, Sam McCoy (Walter Coy), persuades the mayor, Andrew Hoke, to hire him as marshal. Wyatt refuses, but when the first trail herd ever in Wichita arrives and the drunken cowpunchers take over the town with their riotous behavior and accidentally kill a young boy–Wyatt has a change of heart and gets sworn in as marshal. Aided only by his shotgun, cub reporter Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen), and the public support by the idealistic but ineffectual newspaper editor (Wallace Ford), Wyatt stands down the rowdy cowpunchers from the Texas ranch called the Big W. He disarms them and places them under arrest, holding them for trial by the mayor the next morning. Though the leading citizens are pleased he stopped the public disturbance, they are not pleased he kicked these customers out of town because they lost a chance to make money and fear they won’t bring another herd to town. The morally upright Wyatt steadfastly sticks to his principles and goes even further by banning all firearms in town, telling the town council leaders they’ll now have to fire him if they don’t like his methods because he’s committed to enforcing law-and-order in the only way he knows how.
A couple of punkie cowpunchers, Gyp and Hal Clements (Lloyd Bridges and Rayford Barnes), have an ongoing beef with Wyatt (they tried to rob Wyatt when he slept near them on the trail before they came to town and after recovering his money he punched Gyp out), and are joined by slimy saloon owner Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan) in trying to gun down the marshal. Wyatt’s brothers arrive and are deputized, after mistaken by the crooked bar owner as the professional gunmen the Big W ranch owner Clint Wallace promised to send to rub out the marshal. This results in Doc being kicked out of town. The bad guy cowpunchers and Doc miss in their attempt to kill Wyatt and instead accidentally kill Sam McCoy’s wife Mary. The Earp brothers hunt them down–killing two of them and waiting for another day to get Doc. When Gyp, trying to avenge his brother’s death, gets killed in a gun duel with the marshal, the wealthy banker makes peace with Wyatt and admits he was wrong–even allowing Wyatt to marry his pretty daughter Laurie (Vera Miles).
As the film opened Tex Ritter sings Wichita, a corny but familiar type of Western song composed by Hans J. Salter that explains the plot in advance even though what takes place has a force that this song doesn’t achieve. For that matter, few other Westerns can touch the raw nerve and intensity of this film. It forces us to look at the ambiguity of enforcing the law in America. It goes right to the heart of the fear over crime that still prevails in a country reeling from too much crime and trying to get its act together while confused about how to make the law work without turning the country into either a police state or working only to the advantage of the business community or becoming so wishy-washy it satisfies only the criminal element. By the end of Wichita we know Wyatt is a one-man avenging force and on a superficial look his heroic actions worked out fine, but neither he nor the leading citizens nor the ordinary citizens have a handle on how to solve a seemingly endless crime problem that will not go away and guarantee any town in America can be cleaned up for good. Perhaps only controlled for awhile is the message Tourneur leaves us with, and that halting claim is in sharp contrast to the other great western filmmaker John Ford who believed the country was civilized by these intrepid pioneers with guns.
REVIEWED ON 6/19/2005 GRADE: A +