Release Date(s)1955 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)Allied Artists (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C+
Westerns, for years, provided reliable bread and butter for Hollywood. These formulaic films were popular abroad as well as in the United States and were a regular part of the studios’ yearly output. Wichita, given the full CinemaScope and Technicolor treatment, tells the story of lawman Wyatt Earp’s early years in the Kansas town.
Newly arrived, Earp (Joel McCrea, Foreign Correspondent) has come to Wichita intending to go into business. His reputation, however, leads many of the citizens to ask him to become marshal and keep drunken cowboys from regularly shooting up the town. With the railroad having made Wichita a major hub of the cattle business, it could soon become a boom town, but lawlessness would hamper its growth.
Earp refuses repeatedly until, on one drunken spree by cowhands, a young boy is accidentally shot and killed. Earp can’t bring himself to stand by and finally asks to be sworn in. One of his first orders of business is to forbid the wearing of guns within town limits. This is met with pushback not only from the cowhands who want to carouse after bringing in their herds but also from the town’s businessmen, who fear such a law will stifle commerce. But Earp is adamant about the rule and declares that he will not quit.
Earp is not alone in his efforts to bring law and order to Wichita. Newspaper publisher Arthur Whiteside (Wallace Ford, Harvey) and reporter Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen, Northwest Passage) stand by him. They recognize that Earp’s rules will civilize what is a wild town, as evidenced by a banner across its main street that boasts “Everything Goes in Wichita.”
A romantic subplot involves Earp falling for pretty Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles, Psycho), daughter of a prominent businessman. This development slows the action and seems needlessly tacked on. When Earp’s reputation earns him many enemies among cattlemen and townspeople, he becomes a walking target and, fearful for his daughter’s safety, Mr. McCoy (Water Coy, The Searchers) demands that Laurie stop seeing him.
Director Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People) has taken a routine Western plot and made Wichita an exciting, fast-paced picture. The real Wyatt Earp was about 26 when he lived in Wichita. McCrea was 48 at the time and looked more like a man who has been through a lot than an idealistic young firebrand with a driving sense of civic pride, and the screenplay by Daniel B. Ullman portrays Earp as a man instantly respected.
McCrea plays Earp as a stereotypical Western hero. He’s unafraid to go up against overwhelming odds, has right on his side, and is fast with a gun. In the action scenes, McCrea is fine, but his romantic scenes with Vera Miles lack passion and he looks uncomfortable, perhaps because Miles is more than two decades younger. McCrea’s deep voice and physical bearing are reminiscent of John Wayne, but he lacks the star sparkle that Wayne so easily conveyed.
The supporting cast is quite good and features Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) as a trigger-happy cowhand; Edgar Buchanan (McLintock!) as Doc Black, a businessman who values dollars above lawful reforms; Carl Benton Reid (The Egyptian) as the mayor, who has a crisis of conscience when he’s under pressure to fire Earp; Walter Sande (Last Train From Gun Hill) as the head of the herdsmen; and Peter Graves (TV’s Mission: Impossible) and John Smith (TV’s Laramie) as Earp’s brothers.
Wichita was shot by director of photography Harold Lipstein on 35 mm film using CinemaScope and Technicolor processes, presented in the aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The Blu-ray features a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative, and the Technicolor photography looks terrific. On the trail, earth tones dominate the palette, but in town, there are bursts of color from outfits on dance hall girls, flowers, and Laurie’s dresses. Complexions are well rendered, with the cattlemen’s leathery faces appearing as if they are permanently layered with trail dust. Laurie and her mother, in modern make-up, look perhaps a bit too glamorous for even genteel women in a frontier town. Wood grain in furniture is nicely delineated, along with drapery patterns and household furnishings. Blacks are deep and velvety, and exterior night scenes have a blue cast. Director Jacques Tourneur makes great use of the wide CinemaScope frame in early scenes depicting the cattle drive across the prairie with hundreds of cows herded by wranglers on horseback. A town meeting also makes use of the wide screen as a large crowd of extras gather at the center of town to hear the mayor speak. Much of the action takes place indoors, never capturing the grandeur of those early scenes. There are no perceptible visual imperfections to impair enjoyment.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. The most prominent sound effects are the cacophonous gun shots fired by drunken cattlemen on the streets of Wichita. Pistol shots in a few gun duels could stand some “sweetening” to add to the drama. A couple of stagecoaches filled with boisterous people heading for Wichita rumble quickly over dirt roads leading to town. Mooing cows break the silence of the herd being moved along beneath the brilliant Western sky. The title song, heard under the opening credits, is sung by Tex Ritter.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include two classic cartoons in HD:
- Deputy Droopy (6:33)
- The First Bad Man (6:33)
Deputy Droopy – This 1955 MGM cartoon is directed by Tex Avery and Michael Lah. Droopy is put in charge of guarding the safe in the sheriff’s office and told to make noise if any outlaws show up. Slick Wolf and Butch show up to steal the gold, trying to be very quiet, but Droopy tricks them into making noise, causing them both pain and humiliation.
The First Bad Man – Directed by Tex Avery, this MGM cartoon is also from 1955. In this “history” of Texas set one million years ago, villain Dinosaur Dan terrorizes the state. He rustles brontosauruses and hangs out with pretty women. The primitive Texans trap Dan in his mountain hideout, chisel away, and leave behind a small rock jail with Dan inside. In the final scene, set in modern day Dallas, the jail is still standing with Dan still incarcerated, wondering, “When are y’all gonna let me out of here?”
Wichita romanticizes the legend of Wyatt Earp. In fact, he did go into business in town, but as a brothel owner. Throughout his life he moved from one boom town to the next, was involved in embezzlement lawsuits, and was arrested as a horse thief and for pimping in Peoria, Illinois. But he did serve as a lawman in various frontier towns and is best known for the gunfight at the OK Corral, in which he and his brothers faced off against a gang of outlaws and killed three. Wichita avoids all of this, portraying Earp as honest, respectful, and courageous, qualities that defined typical 1950s heroes.
- Dennis Seuling