Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Daniel B. Ullman
If you like movies and their history, and I suspect you might if you’re reading a review of a western from nearly 70 years ago that isn’t readily considered one of the major classics of the genre, then do I have a treat in store for you! Did you know…Wichita is the one and only ever winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Outdoor Drama!? Recently, the Golden Globes were once again the mockery of the Hollywood awards circuit, and it even seems there is a groundswell to have the awards done away with entirely, but thank the heavens for their long tenured place in Hollywood history, or else I never would have known about this absurd award. Questions: why did they think this was a good idea for a category to start? Why did they do away with it immediately? What movies would have gone on to win this prestigious award if it continued? It may sound like I’m making a mockery of it all, and I mostly am, but I’m also all about weird, interesting categories to allow more great movies to be recognized, and Wichita is a good movie worth recognizing, especially so if you are a fan of “outdoor dramas”.
Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) is a very popular figure in both the history of the Wild West as a famed lawman, as well as in western movies. He’s been depicted countless times, and this time we see him as a reluctant lawman who happens into Wichita, a booming cattle town that seems to be under the control of the cattlemen who come into town to let off steam a few times every year. Fed up with their antics, the town hires Earp as the local sheriff, and he agrees under one condition: its his way or the highway. Earp puts his foot down, which rubs the cattlemen the wrong way, in particular Gyp (Lloyd Bridges), who has it in for Earp. With the help of deputy Bat (Keith Larsen), Earp starts to clean up the lawless town, laying down a gun-free edict which at first rubs the town the wrong way, but soon they come to Earp’s side and start to build a lasting community.
McCrea seems the perfect fit for this role as notable lawman Wyatt Earp. We’ve seen him many times before as part of this marathon and I think generally he has grown on me quite a bit. I would describe his style of acting and on screen presence as “journeyman”, which many times is interpreted as an insult, but I mean it largely as a compliment. He can be quiet and unassuming, but he commands the room when he needs to as well and his hardened persona fits well in the west. Here, he presents a certain amount of morality and authority which lives up to the reputation of the character. He really does largely carry the film, which feels standard for lack of a better term. But for so many times when standard seems like a rather brutal summation of a film, here I think it works as a perfectly entertaining and adequate introduction to the legend of Wyatt Earp. We often need films like this one. Not everything has to be a generational, experimental, groundbreaking phenomenon, and McCrea’s performance really grounds this film and makes it what it is, which is a very good western.
I do, admittedly, look forward to seeing more Earp films in the future, and seeing more actors take their shot at the role. But that is more a comment about the legend of Earp and knowing how many other stories can be told with the character than it is with McCrea. McCrea has become a welcome presence in this marathon. I do think the supporting cast was somewhat lacking. Nobody else really stands out in the film, not even Lloyd Bridges, who is also fine, but never standout. That being said, it’s hard not to leave this film and have no regrets. It’s a brief 81 minutes, provides a great central performance and the necessary escape into a legendary story. It’s a fine western, just not something that will last with me, and come back up once I’ve completed this odyssey and am reflecting on the best of the best in the genre. For more fervent fans of the genre, this is likely a must, but for casual fans looking to stick to the classics, this can be skipped. But there is nothing wrong with that. Not everything has to be incredible, and there is great value in uncovering these above average gems that largely go unrecognized. Well, that is except for the Golden Globe for Best Outdoor Drama.