Wichita Blu-ray Review: Wyatt Earp’s Origin Story

How many movies and TV shows have been made about Wyatt Earp? Or been influenced by his reputation? They say he used to show up on film sets, and actors used to mimic his physique. Even John Wayne said he based his early cowboy performances on Earp. Wikipedia lists over 40 films and shows in which Earp either shows up as a character or has one that was obviously based upon the legend. I’ve seen no fewer than three cinematic depictions of the OK Corral gunfight alone. He is perhaps our greatest Western Hero. One might even call him a superhero. His aim is always true, and his heart always pure. Never mind the fact that the real man was periodically on the other side of the law including several arrests for pimping and he had common law marriage to a prostitute.

If Wyatt Earp is a Western superhero, then Witchita is his origin story. The film takes place before that famous gunfight in Tombstone, and before he first became a U.S. Marshall in Dodge City. Here, he’s just a cowboy who made good money hunting buffalo and is now looking for a place to settle down and run a business.

Joel McCrea plays Earp as an unassuming man, one not looking for trouble, or interested in becoming a lawman. When he thwarts a bank robbery, he’s asked by the mayor to become the town marshall, which Earp kindly refuses. But Witchita is an up-and-coming town. It has just gotten a railway and that makes it a perfect stopping point for cowboys leading herds of cattle to points north. When one such gang of cowboys comes into town, tired of the long haul up there and flush with cash, they throw a wild party. They all take a woman (or two) and get loaded on booze. They get loud and rowdy. Then they start to fight and shoot their guns. Stray bullets fly through windows and into storefronts. When one hits a young boy and kills him, Earp grabs the marshall’s badge and gets to work.

He stares down the biggest cowboys with nothing but a shotgun and his wits. He throws half of them in jail and kicks the other half out of town. He outlaws guns and isn’t afraid to boot a town leader out when he breaks the law.

Naturally, this gains him a few enemies. The business leaders don’t like it. They think outlawing guns and clamping down on rowdiness will scare the cowboys away. They try to talk the mayor into firing Earp but he stands by his side. Amongst all this is the love interest, Laurie (Vera Miles), who is the daughter of one of those business leaders. Earp is so good and pure that when Laurie’s father forbids her to see him, he doesn’t push back. He’s a lawman first; love comes later.

It is all fine and good. I like westerns. I like the comfort of a genre that has discernible heroes and villains. I like that you know where they are going to end even before they start. Even when they aren’t great, and Wichita is definitely not great, there is something calming about a Western.

I like Joel McCrea. I’ve seen him in numerous movies and enjoyed most of them. He seems out of place here. His Wyatt Earp is bland. There is no grit to his performance. There is no reason for any of the villains to be scared of him. The action is staged poorly. Jacques Tourneur is a fine director and there are some good compositions here, but the gunfights are dull.

It is interesting as an origin story. To see Wyatt Earp not as the legendary gunfighter and lawman, but as a simple man who wants a quiet life and as greatness thrust upon him. Even if all of that is made up out of whole cloth.

The Warner Archive presents Wichita with a new 4K scan or the original negatives and it looks absolutely beautiful. It was shot in the then-new ultra widescreen ratio of 2.55:1 and Tourneur uses it to great effect. Extras include a couple of silly Tex Avery cartoons.

Posted in , ,

Mat Brewster

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Search & Filter