[Editor’s Note: B Role is an ongoing exploration of the films, artists, and genres shaping the dimly lit universe of the B movie.]
In Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, a sometimes hokey but always earnest blue-blood western, Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) suddenly appears as a lone shadow figure atop a steep ridge, isolated and faceless in an extreme long shot so intrinsic to the genre’s film language. He sits on his horse high above a group of restless cowboys bunkering down for the night on the plains below, and this potent juxtaposition of diverging physical spaces corresponds with the moral battle between lawlessness and honor that marks the film’s social ideology. It’s also one of the few expressionist images harkening back to Tourneur’s earlier genre mood pieces like Out of the Past, Berlin Express, and Cat People, and it effectively introduces Wyatt’s almost ghostly appearance to the world of this ramshackle bunch of ruffians bringing cattle to the boom town of Wichita some miles away. If Wichita begins as a near-mystical interpretation of the Earp legend, it inevitably explores the very costly social and economic compromises haunting the construction of the modern American town.
Despite a collage of wide-angle shots scanning the open range, Wichita’s first act feels strangely cramped, establishing the close proximity between Wyatt’s sturdy stoicism and the cowboy’s aimless volatility. Wyatt’s calm demeanor is tested immediately when two cowhands try to steal his money, resulting in hand-to-hand combat rather than brutal gunplay. Tourneur positions the theme of western hero as mediator first and gun hand second, with the expectation of violence paramount for individual survival and collective progress. It’s clear Wyatt’s experience and wisdom stand head above shoulders over these morally ambiguous goons, men obsessed with women and liqueur who only see one step ahead. But his potential for greatness remains submerged beneath a desire to blend in, something Wyatt himself frankly explains. “I’m just a traveler,” he says, moving on toward Wichita (a place once character calls “Babylon on the Arkansas River”) with the intention of starting a business and planting roots. But as he passes a foreboding sign along the way that reads “Everything goes in Wichita,” Tourneur makes it starkly clear that at some point, Wyatt will have to choose sides between consistent action or no action at all. The lives of good people depend on it.
Professional uncertainty marks Wyatt’s evolution from law-abiding citizen to lawman, with Tourneur slowly showing the cracks of his resistance to defending the town of Wichita, a job that’s offered to him early on by the wealthy town council. Even though he initially turns down the job, Wyatt is immediately aware of the small moral compromises plaguing the space, be it the glorification of the cowboy lifestyle (saloons, brothels) for capitalistic purposes, or the small bits of corruption that have become common practice. During his first day in Wichita, Wyatt mediates one potential gunfight and finishes another, seamlessly winging a band of bank robbers as he’s opening a savings account. In a fascinating deconstruction of traditional western tropes, violence in Wichita occurs quickly and almost entirely within interior spaces, highlighting the actions of characters after the gunfire has subsided (a shadow of Wyatt standing in front of a bullet riddled door is especially striking). This motif crescendos just as Wyatt’s patience disintegrates and anger reaches a boiling point, with Tourneur crafting an especially brilliant set piece where a drunken brood of cowboys “hoorah the town,” a western term for terrorizing the citizens with random gunfire. Amid the violence and debauchery, a young boy in his pajamas walks to his bedroom window, curiously watching until he is abruptly shot in the chest. After this heinous murder, Wyatt has no other choice but to become “the natural born lawman” the town’s newspaper editor believes him to be.
From here, Wichita takes on a piercing and focused narrative trajectory, with Wyatt imposing a “no firearms law” that infuriates the leading businessmen who’ve hired him. The powerful elite realizes that Wyatt’s extreme reforms might not be good for expansion and business if the rowdy cowboys decide to populate other cattle towns. These ideological contradictions, not the inevitably violent cowboys, represent the greatest threat to Wyatt’s ability to protect, and Tourneur handles this dichotomy brilliantly by showing how the small conflicts of each supporting player erodes their hope for personal happiness. In terms of action, the final high-noon showdown might be cinematically unimpressive, but the sudden shootout makes an impact thematically because by this point, Wyatt personifies the town’s collective needs, even if the most powerful citizens don’t want to admit it. That Wyatt has convinced the overall citizenry to believe in his version of America’s future simply through a consistency of action is both classically western and radical by today’s standards.
During Wyatt’s short but blissful wedding ceremony that ends the film, someone inquires why the lawman has decided to move on to Dodge City—the site of his infamous gunplay. The newspaper editor wisely comments, “Because he has to go,” mirroring an earlier story he told about a Boston man who was destined to become a preacher. By the end of Wichita, Tourneur fashions a streamlined slice of historiography championing the idea that the great men of American history, legendary or not, are destined to do honorable work. Finally, productive institutions (law enforcement, church, city hall) are only as successful as the men and women spinning the wheels of progress, and this cinematic version of Wyatt Earp’s origin story paints the great American western hero as an everyman that has no other choice but to do the right thing.
Glenn Heath Jr. lives in San Diego, CA. He writes for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, GreenCine, and In Review Online.