After seeing James Stewart in Vertigo, I became interested to see him in some of his other movies, specifically his Westerns, since those were the only movies of his at my small local library that I had not already seen him in. The first one I watched was Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, the first of five Westerns that the two men made together.
Winchester ’73 is hailed as an important film in the history of Westerns. Anthony Mann brought a new ethos to the Western, with more violence and moral ambiguity to his heroes. I haven’t seen a lot of Westerns, before 1950 or after, so I don’t know if I was fully able to appreciate what Mann did.
The story opens with Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and “High-Spade” Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) coming to Dodge City in 1876. They are hunting an outlaw who goes under the name Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and have been hunting him for years. However, at Dodge City Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is sheriff and no guns are allowed. When Lin sees Dutch Henry in a bar, both men reflexively draw, but without their guns, it’s just reflex and they can do nothing but exchange glowers at the bar while Earp looks on, telling them they can settle their quarrel after they leave Dodge City.
They do compete against each other in a shooting contest, where the winner receives a “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle (President Grant has the first one made), a gun so perfect that all the men are practically drooling over it. After an extremely close contest that reveals that Lin and Dutch Henry have been taught to shoot by the same man, Lin takes home the prize and accuses Dutch Henry of having shot a man in the back. But Dutch Henry nearly kills Lin in his hotel room and makes off with the rifle, though he leaves town so quickly that neither he nor his men have their other guns or any ammunition. Lin and High-Spade set off after them.
What follows are a series of vignettes as the rifle is passed from person to person, with the common threads being the rifle and Lin chasing Dutch Henry and always seemingly just beyond the grasp of his own rifle. The gun goes from Dutch Henry to an Indian Trader who is selling guns to a Native American named Young Bull (played improbably by a very young Rock Hudson), who loses it while fighting the US Cavalry, and so on.
Another common thread besides the Winchester and Lin’s hunt for Dutch Henry is the character of Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), a dance hall girl who wants to settle down and is engaged to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), though she likes Lin when she meets him. She gets entangled both with Lin’s story and with the various vignettes involving the Winchester. She is accidentally closer to both the Winchester and Dutch Henry much more than Lin is until the end.
Winchester ’73 is Anthony Mann’s first Western and what is fun about it is that he seems to cover the entire genre in one film. All the cliches are present: revenge, shootouts, Indians attacking the cavalry (the portrayal of Native Americans is not this movie’s strong suit), cheating at cards, holdups, dance hall girls, outlaws. It’s like a summary of the Western.
A big theme is how the Winchester rifle is associated with manhood. Almost all the men seem to equate their manhood with possessing the Winchester rifle and even guns in general. When Dutch Henry and his men leave Dodge City without their guns, his men complain that they feel naked. Practically every man who sees the rifle covets it and are never willing to part with it under any circumstances, killing each other to get it and leaving a trail of bodies in the rifle’s wake. Even Lola’s cowardly fiance, who runs away when they are attacked by Young Bull, is not willing to part with the rifle when the gleefully amoral and murderous outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (marvelously played by Dan Duryea) wants it.
There are two men who seem to have a different standard of manhood: Wyatt Earp (who keeps the peace in Dodge City and does carry a gun, but only uses it to keep the peace) and Sergeant Wilkes of the US Cavalry (Jay C. Flippen) who is not too proud to admit ignorance or take advice from Lin in defending against Young Bull or to give the Winchester rifle away instead of keeping it for himself. But these two men are the exception, examples of men who do not seem to need to prove anything to anyone and simply do their job.
And of course Lola is not interested in the rifle. She knows how to shoot when she has to and is quite calm under fire, but when her fiance is threatened because he won’t give up the rifle, she urges him to let it go. He does not listen to her, perhaps partly to prove himself in her eyes after he let her down previously.
James Stewart is not actually in the film a huge amount; a lot of time is spent with the Winchester rifle. But Lin is ever present in spirit, single-minded, obsessively focused on catching up with and killing Dutch Henry. He is not so much the hero as the protagonist since he’s not trying to do good so much as exact revenge, a morally dubious aim in life. What really warms his character up is High-Spade, who has ridden with him for years. He asks Lin if he’s thought about what he will do after he’s killed Dutch Henry, concerned that Lin has been hunting him so long that he’s beginning to like it. The warm friendship between them, especially when Lin acknowledges that “he’s rich” in having a friend like High-Spade, goes a long way in keeping Stewart likable.
It’s a great film, not real long (only 92 min.) with a wonderful cast, no dull moments and an interesting take on the West. It a film to see, even if you don’t usually like Westerns.