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Notes on Death and Jurisprudence in Tourneur’s Wichita (1955) by D. Taylor


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In that peculiar manner occasional to the genre, the opening credit sequence of Jacques Tourneur’s fascinating CinemaScope Western Wichita (1955) is accompanied by an eponymous song, warmly intoned by Tex Ritter, that ostensibly summarizes both the narrative and the thematic content of the film with a flurry of deictic language:

In the town of Wichita, Kansas

There was a man, a man of peace

Things were wild in Wichita, Kansas

He told them all: “This killing must cease”

He shot it out with the worst men in Wichita

Made every man lay his pistol down

No one fooled with the Marshal of Wichita

And today it’s a very nice town

Back in Wichita

Law and order prevail

Take me back to Wichita

Let me ride that Wichita trail




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For all its genre-obviousness, this text is already unsettlingly ambiguous. What is a man of peace? Why is a man of peace shooting it out with the worst men in Wichita? What is this condition of “wildness” in line three, and what is the significance or sense of its uncanny passage, fastened like a hinge between lines three and four, into a language of killing and death? Who, or what, is this “all” to whom the man’s statement—like some grave decalogue—is addressed? What is the relationship of all this business to the juridical terms employed, and why do these terms first clearly emerge in line seven, following the coerced “laying down” of pistols? What is the relationship between this man of peace and the Marshal? Are they one in the same? What is the relationship of the triumph of the Marshal and the niceness of the town?

Who is the speaker, and where are they, if not in this Wichita? What is the significance of the three exclamatory cries of “Wichita!” that harken us into the first scene of the film? And none of this is even to mention the shifting rhetorical structure of the lyric: 1) the passage in line eight from the expository, narrative rhetoric of the tale, perhaps attributable to some mythic or legendary past of some “cattle town” called Wichita, Kansas1 into 2) present tense–a descriptive rhetoric of this place, today, now–and, in the final two lines, into 3) a plea or call, a direct, imperative address, reaching outward, that implies the absence, but former presence, of the speaker in Wichita, their desire to return, and someone’s, perhaps our, sudden responsibility to satiate it. It doesn’t take rigorous tropological analysis to discern that there are already some strange, but precise, things at work here, and that there is, at less than two minutes into the film, already much to unpack.

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While some of these ambiguities are necessarily endemic to any figurative enterprise, and some of these questions would indeed be answered quite soundly by the events of the film to come, it is interesting to note the extent to which much of the formal and thematic dynamism of the film can be read in the pointed ambiguity of the opening few minutes, this literal theme song of the film.2 Insofar as this introductory operation is specific to the western genre, it highlights the uncanny radicalism of an ouroboric genre of tale-telling that is precisely formally aware of the tropic and rhetorical character of its own self-constructing (and deconstructing) legendaryness. But there appears to be an operation specific to Wichita being enacted here as well, to which I will return below.

It is tempting to call Wichita a kind of Rousseauian Western. It is concerned with complex, sometimes liminal relationships between a man of peace, a man of the Law, “wildness” (apparently welcomed by the government of the town, with its banners and border sign initially reading “EVERYTHING GOES IN WICHITA”3) and its opposition to something eventually articulated as “Law and Order,” the enforcement of the Law for the establishment of an administrative peace against this wildness, and, most interestingly for a western, the straightforward language of this jurisprudential event being concerned with the outlawing of firearms in the town. In the film as much as in its song, many of these figures are essentially anaphoric, shifting situationally amid the apparently moral and often violent interventions of the legendary gunslinger and, here, “man of peace” Wyatt Earp in certain decisive and transformative events. They are also overdetermined by the various figural borders of this place called Wichita: what could go on inside Wichita as a place where EVERYTHING GOES, what is allowed to happen inside Wichita as an emergent jurisdiction, and what goes on outside it. The song also implies the kind of events that inflect these shifts: in short, deaths, of which there are nine in the film, and, to borrow a term from Achille Mbembe, the emergence of the essentially necropolitical question within the theater of Wichita of what constitutes a juridically administrable death, and what constitutes an unjust one, or one demanding revenge.

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Barring some of John Ford’s films, it is difficult to imagine a more interesting treatment of law enforcement in the genre. Clearly, and like all of Tourneur’s films, Wichita is an extraordinarily rich text that demands attentive and even generative acts of reading as much as it, as the opening teases, resists simplistic paraphrase, or even easy assimilation into the greater Wyatt Earp legend (indeed, a genre in itself). Some of the characters, in particular this incarnation of Earp himself and the wise, philosophical and morbidly alcoholic newspaper editor Arthur Whiteside, are among the most memorable in the genre, and the mise-en-scène, belying the sure temptations of the CinemaScope medium, is perhaps as subtle as it ever was in the ever-painterly Tourneur’s career. Such reading cannot be attempted in such a compact space, but the question of death is a useful point-of-entry to be meditated on for a few moments as evidence of a broader thematic matrix of moral action and juridical power. Each death, even the apparently minor ones, are decisive moments in the film, each rendered differently by Tourneur, urging questions about not only the relationship between death and the establishment of jurisprudence in the film, but likewise between death and cinematic form, or the business of cinematic representation itself.

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For example, the third death, that of Whiteside’s wife, is spoken, dramatized on the screen as a testimonial recollection in speech, happening chronologically before the events in the narrative (but inscribed amid them). Earp (at this point unidentified to the townsfolk by name) sits in the aftermath of the previous two deaths with a tipsy Whiteside, Whiteside’s assistant Bat, and the town’s mayor as the mayor attempts to convince Earp to work as official law enforcement. As Earp leaves, Whiteside waxes into his whiskey-pickled poetics, and the mayor declares the extent to which he wishes the legendary Wyatt Earp could save the town. Following this exchange, Whiteside relates that a cowboy “hoorah” (orgiastic, violent bacchanals that the lawless cowboy herds exact upon prairie towns) caused the death of his wife. This, and its analogy with the fade to black immediately following it (the first in the film), seems both to isolate the function of undramatized death, the unrepresentable index of testimony, as tragic and morally unjustifiable, and also a formative or generative event in the development of identity and situation of the characters and narrative.

This scene also foreshadows the fourth death, the most aestheticized death in the film: that of a child, Michael Jackson, who is killed by a stray bullet while observing the hoorah in awe4. This death, dramatized in an extended, strangely head-on medium shot, is plainly stated throughout as Earp’s justification for assuming the position of Marshal. It seems here that the forces of contingency, loosed as “wildness” upon the town as it yearns for economic development, are unbearable in their moral consequences (the death of an innocent and bewildered spectator), which call for the establishment of Earp’s law enforcement as katechon in Wichita, a protective and preventive juridical violence, mandated by his institutional position, that culminates in his betrayal and negation of the town’s libertarian motto with enforced gun control and, to a degree, border control. This, seen as a negation of the motors of the town’s economic development (that is, profitable “wildness”), results in institutional controversy. It is in the wake of this event that the mayor, who at this juncture admits to McCoy that his position was achieved without a functional democratic process, finally identifies with Earp’s approach, articulating it as “Law and Order”—a phrase as pregnant with political resonance as any in the history of American liberal democracy as it is a kind of emptying and crystallization of the professed moral implications of Earp’s intentions.

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With a final shift, although certainly in no gesture of conclusion, let us return to the final lines of “Wichita,” the song. This voice, a priori but retrospective as if post-mortem, unidentifiable but uncanny in its paraphrastic legibility, yearns to return to Wichita by the means, and then by the admittance, of the unidentified receiver of its address.5 The reaching of cinema out into something else, that which might be called the world—existing beyond the film and indeed the screen altogether, but only conceivable in relationship to the screen that (negatively) posits it—is, in varying articulations, a recurrent motif in both cinema itself as a medium and in the theoretical, political and exegetical frameworks that cinematic representation has generated throughout its inception, or that have attempted to account for or rationalize this genesis. What is fascinating and even singular about these lines is the extent to which they, prior to the film they ostensibly introduce, notate the decisive position of a receiver, articulated but unspecified by this ghostly, all-articulating voice, in the actualization of its (impossible) return to Wichita. If this is a literal question, given the events of the film, it is also a juridical question (as well as a death-question): it is up to a receiver, if they exist, to determine whether the admittance of this ghostly, auto-personifying voice of paraphrase into Wichita as presence—and, indeed, into Wichita the film, as a kind of parergon—is admissible, and actualizable. In this sense, just as Wichita stands as a particularly sophisticated evaluation of the question of Law, it opens itself radically to the impossibility—mediated by a receiver, or, we might speculate as one possibility, a spectator—of the admittance of its own articulation or even self-articulation as Law of the film.6

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1 It would be hasty to assume that any mimetic relationship to the extra-cinematic Wichita, Kansas can be taken for granted here.

2 One might imagine a reading, though perhaps an excessively perverse one, that concludes that the subsequent hour and 20 minutes of the film is actually the mise-en-abyme of this opening song.

3 Note the dual ambiguity between the spatial sense of this phrase, in the sense of everything being able to enter Wichita, and the sense that implies everything can happen, or could be allowed to happen, in Wichita.

4 The possibility of analogy between the fatally awe-stricken child and the cinematic spectator is an interesting prospect, although too multivalent a matter to be treated satisfactorily here.

5 It is not clear whether this impossible return is implied to be spatial (in the sense of a return to Wichita from another place) or temporal (in the sense of a return to a past Wichita). The latter possibility would indeed resonate interestingly with the voice’s earlier narration of a historicizing shift of Wichita from a place of wildness into a place of Law and Order, opening yet another ambiguity too extensive to treat here: the relationship of the desire for a Wichita of Law, or of wildness, to this exiled voice of paraphrastic articulation in its demand for return.

6 The voice’s incantatory repetition of “Wichita,” falling on a curiously unresolved chord as the first scene opens, seems to notate the collapse of this ghostly desire to be taken back to a sayable Wichita, a Wichita as “Wichita.” As the voice slips away into the phenomenal actuality of image and sound, we, spectators undetermined in advance whose existence and capacity is perhaps demanded but unguaranteed, are faced with the manifest possibility that the paraphrase, saying, or even readability of cinema cannot so easily be taken for granted.

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