Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 24, 2023)
Famous lawman Wyatt Earp’s story first made it to movie screens during his lifetime. He died in 1929 but 1923’s Wild Bill Hickok offered a character based on – and named after – Earp.
This opened the floodgates, and we continue to get cinematic depictions of Earp into the modern era. For a “mid-period” Earp flick, we go to 1955’s Wichita.
Set in 1874, Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) comes to Kansas to open his own business. However, lawlessness abounds in Wichita, and that causes consternation and multiple problems.
Due to his talents as a gunslinger, locals pressure Earp to accept the job as town marshal. However, Earp resists these entreaties until he feels he has no choice but to take on that mantle.
Essentially, Wichita acts as an “origin story” for Earp. Most Earp-related adventures focus on his later years and events like the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Of course, one shouldn’t expect a particularly fact-based tale from Wichita. Earp lived a less than virtuous life, but his legend dictated that he come across as true blue.
So that becomes the Earp of Wichita. Whatever nuances one might desire fail to appear in this pretty one-dimensional portrayal of the character.
Not that I would expect a circa 1955 Western to go “warts and all” on us. Indeed, Wichita provides a pretty standard oater for its day.
This doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, though. While Wichita lacks anything to make it special, it nonetheless becomes a more than competent genre affair.
Again, albeit one with nary a surprise or original moment on display. From the very start, virtually every moment and development in Wichita seems preordained, as the story follows the tried and true contours of the genre.
Nonetheless, it does so in a fairly positive manner, even though it comes with one self-inflicted wound: McCrea’s age. 50 years old during the shoot, this becomes a problem for a variety of reasons.
For one, Earp himself was 26 in 1874. For another, the film delivers a romance between Earp and Laurie McCoy, played by Vera Miles, an actor 24 years younger than McCrea.
We can fairly easily accept the discrepancy between the ages of McCrea and Earp because honestly, how many movie fans know Earp’s birthdate? Sure, some buffs will be aware that McCrea was much older than Earp circa 1874, but if I’d not looked it up, I wouldn’t have been aware.
On the other hand, the gap in ages between McCrea and Miles seems scarily obvious, as the craggy McCrea easily looks old enough to be Miles’ father. Actually, McCrea was four years older than Walter Coy, the actor who plays Laurie’s father!
Why not just cast a younger actor as Earp? The movie didn’t need to make him 26, but surely they could’ve found someone 35 or younger who could handle the role.
That feels especially true because while McCrea delivers a perfectly decent performance, he never dazzles. He offers a version of the steady and stalwart lawman with no real wrinkles or nuances.
The same goes for Wichita as a whole, for it brings a meat and potatoes Western. As noted, it lacks surprises or anything to make it stand out as above the crowd.
That said, outside of the too-old McCrea, Wichita also never screws up in any obvious way. It brings us a moderately engaging Western that keeps us with it over its 82 minutes, and that seems good enough for me.