Saving the Economy or Saving Lives? Wait, You're Talking about a Western from the 1950s???
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Produced by Walter Mirisch, Victor Heerman
Story and screenplay by Daniel B. Ullman
Cinematography by Harold Lkipstein
Edited by William Austin
Music by Hans J. Salter
Allied Artists Pictures
(1:21) Warner Archive DVD (MOD)
Today I’m taking a very brief look at Wichita, a movie I picked up from the recent 4 for $44 sale at Warner Archive, along with three other Westerns: Station West (1948), The Hanging Tree (1959), and Wild Rovers (1971). I often hear from people who ask what I'm watching, and then inquire, "Why do you watch all these old film noir movies and Westerns? They're so out-of-touch with today's world."
As far as the historical accuracy of Wichita, who knows? (I think Colin at the blog Ride the High Country does. He has an excellent review of the film here. So does my friend Laura over at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.) I just know I had a great time with the film. Not only is Wichita a Technicolor Cinemascope Western, it’s also directed by Jacques Tourneur, one of my favorite directors, and stars Joel McCrea, another favorite.
McCrea plays Wyatt Earp, riding into the up-and-coming town of Wichita, where, as all the signs advertise, “Everything Goes.” Earp is hoping to become a businessman, but all the locals tell him the only business that’s going to thrive there is the saloon business. (I guess the Production Code didn’t consider brothels a legitimate thriving business…)
After dealing with a group of bank robbers, Earp is inundated with pleas to become the town marshal. He doesn’t want it. They ask again. He still doesn’t want it. Of course, we know he’s going to take the job, otherwise we’d have a 22-minute movie, and that just won’t do. After a large group of cattlemen come into town to blow off some steam (and shoot up the town), tragedy strikes and Earp goes into action about a microsecond after he’s sworn in as town marshal.
There’s more to the movie, but the main problem is this: The locals like the protection from dangerous drunken rowdies, but they don’t like Earp’s “no guns” policy in town. That will turn away the cattlemen, and without the cattlemen’s dollars, the town will dry up, just as it’s getting on its feet.
Wichita is basically a tale of economics vs. morality. Even after someone is killed during the cattlemen’s rampage, the town council still wants everyone to be able to enjoy the town without checking their guns. There’s too much money at stake, and if we lose a few lives, well, that’s certainly unfortunate, but… $$$$$$$$$$$$ Gimmie gimmie gimmie.
Sound familiar? Yes, I understand that this is a very simplistic comparison with what we’re dealing with right now during this pandemic, but it’s really not that far off the mark. I rarely get into politics here and I certainly don’t want to preach, but it’s always interesting to find instances of older films speaking to us today in extremely relevant ways. Here’s a film made 65 years ago that’s tapping you on the shoulder, trying to get your attention.
By their very nature, Westerns tend to deal with issues of ethics, morality, and certainly mortality. I’m sure many people have written studies on this topic (and I’d love to read some of them - suggestions welcome), but it’s interesting how Westerns - both in movies and on TV - enjoyed a bonanza (no pun intended) during the '40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, only to dry up and mostly vanish by the ‘80s. (Sure, we had several “revisionist” Westerns that blurred the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.) The Western is still around, but those from the ‘20s through the early ‘60s - though often derided for being too simplistic and moralizing - were not just popular, but wildly popular for a reason. Maybe we’ve lost something of the spirit of those films. Maybe we tap into that "something," at least a little, when we watch the moral dilemma of a movie like Wichita.
Photos: Kansas Historical Society, DVD Beaver, IMDb, Cult Film Freaks