I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how much I have loved Westerns since I was a little girl. But for some reason, I didn’t get around to seeing Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 until about three or four years ago.
Ever since then it has toppled any other possible contender for my all-time favorite Western.
The post-war years marked a significant shift in star Jimmy Stewart’s career. Known before the war for mostly light comedic fare, he began making films with more complex characters, including It’s a Wonderful Life. Winchester ’73 was the first Western he starred in since 1939’s Destry Rides Again.
The post-war years also saw a shift in the popular Western genre. The white hat/black hat hero/villain dynamic was becoming less and less the norm. Manifest Destiny was occasionally shown as negative rather than positive. Native Americans, though still mostly played by white actors, were beginning to be portrayed with a bit more complexity and empathy.
Winchester ’73 is considered by many the first revisionist Western. It follows the fate of a rare Winchester ’73 repeating rifle and the people who briefly manage to own it.
Opening on July 4, 1976, the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Dodge City is hosting a shooting contest with a rare and much sought-after Winchester rifle as the prize. Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is determined nothing will mar the event and has banned guns within the city limits. He also escorts out of town dance hall pianist Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), who begs to be allowed to stay until her fiancée Steve (Charles Drake) arrives. Thinking she is being unfairly treated, Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his “pard” High-Spade (Millard Miller) try to intervene. She is grateful but complies with Earp’s directive.
In a saloon, Lin encounters Dutch Henry Brown (Steve McNally), who instinctively reaches for his missing guns when he sees him. Lin has been pursuing the outlaw for a long time, but both want to compete in the contest for the rifle. The two are the finalists, with Lin impressing all with his shooting skills and winning the prize.
Dutch steals the gun from Lin. Thus begins a long pursuit as the gun switches ownership several times, until a final confrontation between the two men. The gun is briefly owned in turn by an Indian trader (John McIntire), Chief Young Bull (Rock Hudson), Lola’s cowardly fiancée Steve, outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea), and back to Dutch.
There are two main things that sets Winchester ’73 above many Westerns, in my view: first is the quality of the writing (by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Stuart N. Lake) and the care taken in creating even the minor characters. All the main characters are indelible (Waco is hands down my favorite Dan Duryea performance) and quite a few of the minor ones are also memorable.
Secondly is the superb direction by Mann, who uses depth of field to stunning effect, helped by the equally stunning black and white photography by William H. Daniels.
Shelley Winters was quoted as not having been that pleased by her character, but Lola is one of my favorite Western heroines—brave, smarter than most of the men around her, and a survivor even in dire circumstances. Her disappointment in Steve when he shows himself a coward doesn’t crush her will.
The film is rather episodic, yet each quasi-vignette is carefully constructed and flows into the next effortlessly.
Then there is the character of Lin McAdam, who must have been an odd hero for a Western back in 1950. His motivations for pursuing Dutch are extremely personal and would seem to exempt him from the pursuit.
If anything, I was rather stunned by the ending of the film the first time I viewed it, certain Lin would not be the one to get Dutch. The final pursuit, filmed against an unforgiving landscape, deconstructs the notion of the Western as simplistic “good vs. evil.” Lin is a good man who does something heinous, even though there is an argument to be made that his actions are justified.
Yes, in the end he retrieves the prized rifle, vanquishes the villain, and wins the girl. But unlike many Westerns before it, Winchester ’73 acknowledges there is a harsh price paid for all.