United States, 1950
Directed by Anthony Mann
With James Stewart (Lin McAdam), Millard Mitchell (High Spade), Shelley Winters (Lola Manners), Will Geer (Wyatt Earp), Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown), John McIntire (Joe Lamont), Rock Hudson (Young Bull), Charles Drake (Steve Miller), Jay C. Flippen (Sgt. Wilkes), Dan Duryea (Waco Johnny Dean)
The film bears the name of a famous rifle, the gun which supposedly won the West according to its maker, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, but it is not simply a nod to the arm’s quality and fame. A Winchester ’73 rifle is actually the central character of the film. Captured in a medium shot at the very beginning of the story as it lays exposed inside a showcase, a topic for discussion among the young and old of Dodge City, Kansas, and the big prize of a shooting competition, it would travel around a lot till the man who won it first finally gets his hands on it in the final images, although the guy is readily dropped out of the frame as the camera focuses in a closeup on the rifle’s barrel.
Even if the film carefully tracks Lin McAdam in his hunt for a killer, his poignant story is just the most important of the many developments involving the rifle, which are all connected to the images and anecdotes readily associated with the West. The clever screenplay makes it go the round among the genre’s archetypal figures and involves it in the genre’s narrative tropes.
The shooting competition is organized by one of those legendary personalities who have aroused the passions and captured the imagination of the nation and its entertainment industries, perennial gambler and fierce law and order defender Wyatt Earp. From the organizer the rifles passes on the winner, Lin McAdam, a tough guy riding along an old friend, High Spade. But the loser does not concede; this gunslinger happens to be the man Lin McAdam is looking for to kill, Dutch Henry Brown. The actors have made crystal-clear from the start that their characters deeply hate each other, though the reason why is left untold at this point. Dutch Henry Brown, the quintessential bad guy with nothing in common with his gentler nemesis, manages to steal the rifle (a so-called One of One Thousand arm, a nickname pointing out to the outstanding quality of the production).
But lacking money to buy guns for him and his two sidekicks, he is compelled to sell the rifle to a trader, Joe Lamont, a colorful, cynical character standing for the kind of people who have always managed to do business in the rough-and-tumble move to the Frontier, an unavoidable fixture fueling suspicion. Joe Lamont trades with Indians; a quarrel with one of his main customers, the chief of a bellicose tribe, Young Bull, ends with his killing while the Native American grabs the coveted arm.
He uses it to attack a small group of the United States Cavalry led by Sergeant Wilkes, but his tribe loses the fight as Lin McAdam and High Spade, who have found the endangered group of soldiers by chance as they were pursuing Dutch Henry Brown, find a way to outfox the Indians’ tactics. The rifle is retrieved in the battlefield by a young soldier and the sergeant, who reckons their officers would confiscate it for their own pleasure and so gives it as a gift to Steve Miller, a man who has met the soldiers as he was fleeing the tribe with his fiancée, Lola Manners. Steve Miller gladly accepts the gift, even if his contribution to the fight was minor, and his gentleman allure belies a thoroughly weak personality. He then moves to the town where he hopes to settle with his gal.
But he also wants to meet a dubious character who is supposed to help him in business: Waco Johnny Dean, who turns out to be a criminal, and in fact the perfect embodiment of an insane sociopath. Keen on getting both the rifle and the woman, he gets rid of his partner and runs away with his new possession to meet a fellow murderer and robber, Dutch Henry Brown. They plan to rob a bank in a nearby town but their operation turns awry thanks to Lola Manners’ hatred for them and her lucky meeting with Lin McAdam. The gunfight leads to the final pursuit between the two men and the final showdown ending with the death of the bad guy.
It seems there is not a character or a situation from the westerns textbooks missing in this film and neither are typical, thrilling actions, from the decisive poker game (which enables Lamont to get the Winchester ’73) to the long exchange of gunshots in a spectacular, rocky landscape, from the hot pursuit of a carriage by wild riders on a plain to a fistfight in a saloon. They are shot at a brisk pace and in stunning compositions which rely on the kind of bold, dynamic angles director Anthony Mann already liked to shot in his previous noir films. This taut film hits all the right buttons of a western entertainment, nicely capturing precise, eloquent performances by a well-chosen cast, too, but never losing sight, throughout the montage, on the titular rifle.
It is, in the final analysis, a cruel symbol of the West. Men get amazingly obsessed with it, and with arms more broadly. Male characters moan that they feel naked, i.e. defenseless and powerless, if deprived of a gun. Getting the finest of the weapons excite them and drives them deeper into folly. It is held as the ultimate weapon to crush an enemy; it can surely do away with anyone deemed a nuisance. Ironically, it never saves the owner’s life: most of those who grabbed this One of One Thousand die – the survivors are two men in charge of protecting the law and the nation, who have never planned to keep it, the hero, but the fact is he has never been able to keep it, and the lady. That fits the happy ending rule and the morals of that kind of story in a way but points to the devious nature of the arm and to the dreadful impact of violence in the building of the American West.
The clash between Lin McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown eventually highlights the tragic issue of this manly culture of fighting and bloody nation-building. It first appears as a thrilling plot and sustains the audience’s interest in a mad, though highly spectacular and exciting pursuit; but it is intriguing, too, as no clear explanation is given. The screenplay smartly takes its time and chooses interesting turns and twists before at long last explaining everything. When all becomes clear, in a narrative brilliantly running in parallel with the final showdown, a more upsetting, saddening, and tragic element is bluntly added to the lucid depiction the film has so far made of the West. It also stands out as a place where even families are torn apart by gun violence and fratricidal fighting is an unavoidable part of the widespread practice of revenge.
This critical vision of the West is a turning point for the director, who would shoot more westerns with the same willingness to cast lead characters wrecked by unease and made dissatisfied by the hardship of their life on the Frontier. “Winchester ’73” is also a turning point for the lead actor; James Stewart is rebooting a faltering career by taking roles of tougher but also more tormented characters than he used to play. In this case, despite the gentle side he shows with Lola Manners and High Spade, he excels at playing a determined rider who knows how to handle a situation but can suddenly explodes in freakish, shocking outburst. This was an unexpected performance that is riveting and telling of the deceptive nature of the American West Hollywood liked to shoot – not really an heroic, or just cool, adventure but a far darker, crueler chaos.