Jacques Tourneur, 1955
"Saloons my friend, they are the profitable enterprises".
"Here come the history makers" - Editor of the Wichita newspaper, referring to the cowboys.
"I've lived in the West all my life. I've seen dozens of these trail towns, the violence troubles me." Wyatt
Wichita, Jacques Tourneur, 1955
The film opens with a cattle drive, which is nearing its end as it is close to Wichita, a newly built railhead where the drive has been heading. Wyatt Earp (McCrea ) rides into the herders' camp, carrying the spoils of buffalo running. Having enjoyed his welcome and meal he retires to his bedroll. While he is asleep a couple of cowboys, one played by Lloyd Bridges try to relieve him of his profits, but Wyatt wins out and travels on to Wichita in advance of the cattle drive. There he witnesses the celebration of the arrival of the Railroad - the brainchild of Sam McCoy, another character who really existed, except his forename was Joseph. Incidentally I remember Alistair Cooke saying that this man was the origin of the phrase "the real McCoy".
While Wyatt is depositing his savings in the bank a raid takes place which he averts by quick and effective gunplay. Although asked to become the town's lawman Wyatt resists as he says that he is a businessman. Later he elaborates that the lawman is always under threat from those seeking to prove them selves. The early theme of the film is whether or not he will take the job, given his obvious suitability for it. Wyatt is determined not to get caught up in the struggle to contain the cowboys from the Big W who cause trouble by their rowdy behaviour and by shooting up the town.
When the drovers go on a drunken shooting spree late at night Wyatt shows restraint but when a child is shot he cannot hold back any longer. He intervenes to the drovers' amusement since he is on his own. But unbelievably he singlehandedly re - establishes order.
The issue is raised of the town depending on the cattlemen's money as a commercial proposition - the tension between what is "right" and what is profitable. It was this problem that led to Abilene plummetting from grace as the centre of the Cattle Trade. Its residents decided they would not put up with the lawless behaviour at the end of the trail, but since they depended on the cattle drives for their wealth they shot themselves in the foot. For those interested in the veracity of the subject matter, Earp spent time as a law enforcer in Wichita before moving to Dodge. Wichita took over, with Elsworth, Newton and Dodge from where Abilene left off.
Wyatt is "overdoing his job a little bit". The resolution of the film depends on
"a difference of opinion about how the town of Wichita should be" Wyatt.
But perhaps the real worth of the film is that the crime and violence which threatens to undermine the community of "decent folk" is always there, threatening in the background. "Civilised" society sometimes hangs by a thread.
This is an archetypal western with archetypal themes. It is superbly acted and wonderful throughout. The only surprise is that this Western is not looked upon as a classic.
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© Chris Smallbone June 2012