Winchester ’73, launched on June 7, 1950, tells the story of the hero Lin McAdam (played by the charming James Stewart) and of another kind of hero: a famous Winchester ’73 rifle, the one-of-a-thousand. Be prepared for a thrilling adventure!
Winchester 73’ is the first movie of a successful artistic duo: Anthony Mann and James Stewart. As in many of their collaborations, James Stewart plays the role of the good man who has his share of darkness. Right from the beginning Lin arrives in Dodge City (a real city in Kansas) with his associate High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) and crosses paths with Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), a brigand with whom he clearly has a troubled past. The aura of mystery around the origin of their dispute hangs over the whole movie.
The famous Winchester 73’ rifle is also present right from the beginning: the marshal, Wyatt Earp (who was an actual Marshal in Dodge City, here played by Will Geer), organised some festivities for the Fourth of July, and the main attraction is a shooting contest to win a famous Winchester ’73. Both Lin and Dutch Henry take part in the contest and will be each other’s main rival. The scene of their first encounter is particularly funny. The marshal has confiscated all guns in order to have a peaceful Fourth of July, so when Lin enters the saloon and Dutch Henry sees him, both want to take their guns … but they don’t have them! A comic twist is given to the classic scene of the saloon confrontation, and that kind of anti-western and stereotype-breaking winks makes this movie very enjoyable. In fact, such humour was already present in earlier movies like Destry Rides Again, made in 1939, also starring James Stewart.
The contest for the Winchester ’73 ends with Lin and Dutch Henry betting and shooting endlessly for victory. Lin wins but as he gets back to his hotel room he is attacked by Dutch Henry who steals the rifle and flees the city with his companions. That’s the point of departure of the pursuit which drives the scenario: Lin running after Dutch Henry. During this pursuit we discover a Western hero far from the clichés of the genre: Lin has never learned to shoot people, has never killed anyone, nor has he ever wanted to, and he admits being scared of confronting the Indians, or having to face Dutch Henry. He is a man like any other—afraid, flawed and mortal—who becomes a hero through accepting and defeating his weaknesses and fears.
Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) also represents a new kind of hero. She was a saloon singer from Dodge City whom Lin briefly met and who goes on a less than peaceful journey from Dodge City to the new home where she is supposed to live with her fiancé, Steve Miller (Charles Drake). Lola is courageous and strong; she uses her wits to achieve her goals and knows how to defend herself. She turns the classical view of the fragile feminine character upside down, and her adventures build a solid second thread to the plot.
However, some elements still correspond to some clichés and classical features of the genre at that time, and it is a shame that only the main characters really do break the rules. For example, Dutch Henry is a typical Western villain, black-hatted and violent, and Joe Lamont is a perfect gambler, well dressed, juggling with a set of cards and playing the odds… Those characters, though stereotypical, are nonetheless charming and always thrilling to see in Western movies. Their wit and self-confidence have an unwise kind of appeal. Another one of those stereotypical characters is Young Bull, the representative of the Indian, who is played by an Anglo-Saxon and speaks in very stereotypical manner. This way of presenting the Indian was very common to Westerns in the 50s, but the bravery of Young Bull will later on draw the spectator’s admiration and thus balance that first impression.
Wyatt Earp, the real one, said: “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” This saying could describe the whole movie, its slow pace and perfectly tied scenario. Definitively a movie not to miss: one of a thousand!
Winchester ’73, (USA, 1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann