Contrary to popular belief, most Westerns are not about cowboys—but gunslingers, lawmen and outlaws. Comparatively few actually focus on cowboys. Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) shines brightest among this minority. But even then the cowboys are mythologized to the point that John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson seems almost indistinguishable from any one of the other tall-in-the-saddle heroes he depicted during his career. First and foremost, cowboys were blue collar laborers, cogs in a capitalistic machine that provided marketplaces all over America with beef. Theirs was a life of grueling, tedious, dangerous 24/7 labor that lasted for months on end. When they finally got to their purse of pay at the end of their drives, only a fool would expect them to remain calm and orderly. And when booze, sex, and firearms mixed, it could spell disaster for whatever town they frequented.
It is here that we find Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955), an astounding little Western, since overshadowed by its director’s earlier, more iconic work collaborating with producer Val Lewton on a series of RKO Studios horror films which revolutionized the genre despite their absurd premises and even more absurd budgets. Here we find a doggedly anti-capitalistic and pro-gun control Western released at the height of McCarthyism. Even more astonishingly, the cowboys are the villains. Only a miracle must have saved Tourneur from getting run out of Hollywood on a rail.
The plot centers on Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) in his pre-Dodge City, pre-Tombstone days, as he reluctantly becomes marshal of the fledgling city of Wichita, Kansas, a growing community that has staked its entire economy on catering to rambunctious cowboys fresh from cattle drives. But the first team of cowboys to visit Wichita goes on a destructive bacchanalia, leaving the town in shambles and a young boy murdered. Earp meets the carnage with a simple solution: no guns within city limits. At first, his bravado and the new ordinance bring peace. But the business-owners begin to grumble that if word gets out about their new marshal and the ban on firearms, other cowboys will avoid them; the unspoken subtext being that intermittent property damage and periodic killings are a price worth paying for economic progress. But Earp understandably disagrees.
So begins a struggle between law and capitalistically condoned disorder, between business-owners and everyday citizens, between profit and human life itself. In most classical Westerns, frontier towns stand as beacons of encroaching civilization in an uncivilized wilderness. The white-hatted heroes serve to help restore equilibrium to these communities threatened from within by criminal elements and from without by Native Americans, bandits, and occasionally corrupt business magnates—railroad and cattle barons being two of the most popular. But Wichita views the very prospect of economic development, and to an extrapolated extent the arrival of civilization, as suspect. The cowboys are portrayed as amoral, barely controllable hooligans and those seeking to profit off them; little better. The only possible solution to keeping the peace is regulation: gun control, committed law enforcement, and a conscious decision on behalf of the public not to suffer destruction and death if it means more customers.
But in addition to being a thought-provoking Western, Wichita sees Tourneur at the height of his talents as a filmmaker. His first film shot in CinemaScope, Wichita eschews unnecessary editing in favor of painterly widescreen compositions. Conversations are frequently handled using 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-shots instead of frequently cross-cut 1- and 2- shots. The resulting film feels wide-open and spacious regardless of whether a scene takes place on the range or in a living room.
McCrea brings a quiet authority to his role as Wyatt Earp, but otherwise does little to distinguish his performance from the other actors who have played the character. But Wyatt Earp isn’t intended to be the big selling point of the film. Much like William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), Wichita is first and foremost a film about ideas that utilizes the trappings of the genre to make bold statements about humanity and society.