Even diehard Western fans may not be familiar with Wichita, but director Jacques Tourneur’s chronicle of a young Wyatt Earp’s efforts to clean up the titular Kansas town delivers slam-bang (emphasis on the bang) entertainment. Warner Archive’s eye-filling CinemaScope transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, potent remastered audio, and a couple of Tex Avery cartoons add up to a rootin’-tootin’ Blu-ray presentation that will delight the genre’s legion of fans. Recommended.
If you think gun control has only been a serious social issue for a couple of decades, take a look at Wichita, a 1955 Western about the young Wyatt Earp's brazen attempts to stem rampant violence in the fledgling Kansas town in the 1870s. Earp, who arrives in Wichita with no intention of joining local law enforcement, takes the job of marshal after a stray bullet kills a five-year-old boy who went to his window to watch a gang of marauding cowboys shoot up the town. It's the kind of tragedy we hear about all too frequently these days in our inner cities, so seeing it depicted in a movie made almost 70 years ago heightens its impact. Though director Jacques Tourneur's Western is fairly typical in other regards, in this one aspect it's unique.
Earp was hardly an upstanding character in real life, but you'd never know that by watching Wichita. Like many other films that celebrate this legendary figure, Wichita throws history out the window and aggrandizes and romanticizes the man who's best known for participating in the iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Yes, Earp was a resident of Wichita at the time the narrative takes place, but that's the only shred of historical accuracy in Daniel B. Ullman's screenplay. The rest is pure fiction (if truth be told, Earp was sowing his oats during his time in Wichita, not jailing outlaws), and though it takes a while to get rolling, the story eventually finds its groove and delivers solid entertainment.
"Everything Goes in Wichita" is the town motto and its loose morals and lawless atmosphere attract droves of people who fuel its burgeoning economy and spur its growth. Booze flows freely, brothels are plentiful, and gambling is everywhere in Wichita, and after a bunch of drunken, rowdy cattle rustlers go on a drunken rampage one night and accidentally kill a little boy named Michael Jackson, the newly badged Earp (Joel McCrea) takes the rash step of banning all firearms within the city limits.
That edict doesn't sit well with most of Wichita's bigwigs - especially saloon owner Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan) - who fear the strict law will steer cowboys and settlers away from Wichita and ruin their businesses. Earp understands their outrage, but won't be deterred, despite the threats leveled against him. Tensions mount, but with the help of newspaperman-turned-deputy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen), Earp stands firm and stands up to Sam McCoy (Walter Coy), the smug banker who not only opposes him, but is also the father of Laurie (Vera Miles), the woman he loves.
While it's easy to dismiss the way Wichita plays fast-and-loose with the facts, it's tougher to accept the always reliable, likeable, and low-key McCrea as the "young" Earp. The legendary lawman was in his mid-20s when he arrived in Wichita; McCrea was 49 and sporting a slight paunch when he signed on to play Earp. Make no mistake, McCrea (who is four years older than the actor who plays his girlfriend's father) is an asset to any Western and fills Earp's shoes well, but he looks like a cradle-robber next to the 26-year-old Miles and it's hard to accept the 31-year-old Larsen as his contemporary. (Interestingly, five years after Wichita was released, Miles and Larsen would marry and have a child together before divorcing 11 years later.)
Most of us know Tourneur as the director of the eerie, atmospheric Cat People and one of the best film noirs of all time, Out of the Past, but he also helmed a few Westerns, most of which starred McCrea. Wichita would be his first and only CinemaScope film and he maximizes the enhanced screen real estate, fashioning sweeping images of both the expansive plains and Wichita's bustling main drag. Though Tourneur would continue to direct movies and TV episodes for several more years, Wichita would turn out to be his last truly notable motion picture.
A strong supporting cast also bolsters Wichita's appeal. Miles, who was still rising through the ranks, is merely ornamental, but Lloyd Bridges grabs attention as a cocksure cowboy who finds himself in Earp's crosshairs, the always colorful Wallace Ford shines as a cynical newspaper editor, and Buchanan, who usually plays the hero's lovable sidekick, makes a surprisingly nasty bad guy. A young Peter Graves pops up midway through the film and Mae Clarke, best remembered for taking a half-grapefruit in the kisser from a snarling James Cagney in The Public Enemy, portrays Miles' mother.
Wichita isn't a great Western, but it checks all the boxes and its gun control message resonates in our current day and age. For better or worse, Tourneur's film perpetuates the heroic Earp legend, and though McCrea may not embody Earp in his youth, he effortlessly carries this little-known, yet worthwhile Western.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Wichita arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted in the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative yields a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that celebrates the breadth and beauty of the Technicolor CinemaScope photography of Harold Lipstein, who received an Oscar nomination the very same year for A Man Called Peter. Despite the prevalence of dusty landscapes, bursts of color from flowers, bushes, and the plumes on the prostitutes' skimpy gowns enliven the frame. Verdant green trees, some purple drapes, and a powder blue picnic blanket also make statements and polished wood textures gleam. Faint grain preserves the feel of film, excellent clarity and contrast highlight fine details in clothing and decor, and inky blacks supply bold accents. Nocturnal scenes are surprisingly crisp and good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout and no nicks or scratches mar the pristine print. This is another spectacular transfer from Warner Archive that will thrill Western fans and thrust them into the action of Wichita.
Gunplay is a staple of most Westerns, but Wichita takes the norm to extremes. Luckily, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track handles everything the film throws at it, from raucous saloon scenes to a lengthy marauding sequence featuring almost non-stop gunfire. A wide dynamic scale embraces the highs and lows of both six-time Oscar nominee Hans Salter’s score and the lazy strains of Tex Ritter's theme song without any distortion, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Atmospherics like chirping crickets and mooing cows nicely shade the action and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
A couple of classic Tex Avery cartoons, both of which are presented in HD, are the only extras on the disc.
Vintage Cartoon: Deputy Droopy (HD, 7 minutes) - In this hilarious animated short that Ritter co-directed with Michael Lah, the lovable Droopy is tasked with guarding a stash of loot at the jailhouse and keeping two very persistent burglars away from it.
Vintage Cartoon: The First Bad Man (HD, 7 minutes) - Singer Tex Ritter narrates this Tex Avery cartoon that takes us back a million years to witness how the world's first bad man inspired the building of the very first jail.
Wichita takes a while to rev its engine, but the fine cast, Western atmosphere, and Warner Archive’s terrific Technicolor CinemaScope transfer eventually bring this Wyatt Earp tale up to speed. The 4K scan struck from the original camera negative delights the eyes, robust audio enhances the gunfights, and a couple of classic cartoons add some whimsy to this Blu-ray presentation of a long-forgotten but winning Western. Recommended.