Winchester ’73 was the first in a string of successful Westerns to be directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. Stewart, who was worried about his career following a number of post war flops, decided he needed to branch out as an actor and jumped at the role of Lin McAdam in this story of one man’s search for his gun. Audiences were initially surprised at the casting but Stewart went on to have a successful career in Westerns alongside the dramas and thrillers for which he is better known. McAdam (Stewart) enters Dodge City with his friend High Spade (Millard Mitchell) on the eve of a Centenary Rifle Shoot Competition. His main rival for a once in a lifetime prize of a priceless Winchester ’73 rifle is the outlaw ‘Dutch Henry’ Brown (Stephen McNally) and it soon becomes obvious that the two have history. McAdam wins the rifle but it’s stolen by Dutch and passes through several hands before the two can square off again to decide once and for all who should own the precious gun.
With a plot that goes back and forth from interesting to really boring and some incredibly clichéd and reductive dialogue, Winchester ’73 runs the risk of being just another Western. The poor generalising of Native Americans and stereotypical female character only chalks up marks in its negative column but there is something about the movie which gives it a spark. I personally think that spark is the gun. I have no interest in firearms and have never held a real one, let alone shot one but the film turns the gun into something else. It isn’t a gun, it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol of masculinity, success and triumph and every male character in the movie wants it.
A problem with the ‘gun porn’ is that the movie could be viewed as an advert for the gun manufacturer. I expect the Winchester company were overjoyed at the success of a movie which prized one of its products above all else. The company incidentally stopped trading just a few years ago in 2006. The film is interesting in that for a lot of the time the movie stays with the gun as though it is a character. I saw this briefly in All Quiet on the Western Front regarding a pair of boots but that was merely a short montage. This lasts the whole movie. Apart from spending time with Jimmy Stewart’s Lin McAdam, the film is always with whoever has possession of the gun, whether it is an outlaw, a trader or an Indian Chief. McAdam comes into brief contact with both the Winchester and his outlaw foe before a final shootout which is exhilarating but ends abruptly. Shortly before this the plot reveals a twist about their past but it doesn’t have any effect on the wider story.
Several characters come and go. Some of them are well written and acted while others are less so. There is a brief cameo by a young Rock Hudson who plays an Indian Chief. Hudson turned into a fine actor but is miscast as a Native American here. His casting is also a little off given that he has no Native blood in him at all. Tony Curtis also makes a brief appearance and looks completely out of place with his early 50s rock ‘n’ roll style haircut. Will Geer is cast as the famous Sherriff Wyatt Earp and even the actor himself later admitted to being miscast. John McIntire impressed me as Indian Trader Joe Lamont. He was only on screen for about five minutes but was very memorable. The female lead (and in fact only woman in the entire film – at all) is Lola, played finely by Shelley Winters. Winters has pretty much nothing to do but get passed around by men, mirroring the fait of the gun, but it obvious that she has talent. Millard Mitchell is watchable and Stephen McNally makes a very good villain while Jimmy Stewart is surprisingly brash and unkempt to a man like me who has only seen him in polite ‘golly’ mode before. He, as so often is the case, is very good.
The cinematography is pretty and the location work is fine. The small towns look typical of the period but some of the costumes, especially those worn by children, just look like 1950s clothes. The camera stays mostly static but is pleasingly fluid on its occasional forays off its mount and tripod. Overall there is a lot to be said that Winchester ’73 is just another Western and a lot of it is stale and well trodden but I enjoyed it in bursts and liked the principal characters and central premise. It is by no means perfect but is a sometimes fun 90 minutes of big landscapes, gun fights and Jimmy Stewart.
- The budget didn't extend to Stewart's $200,000 fee so he took a revolutionary step in taking a cut of the profits instead. This subsequently became very popular in the profession and Stewart actually made $600,000 from the proceeds.
- Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct but when he backed out, Stewart suggested Anthony Mann who he had worked with in the theatre in the 1930s.
- In the 'bullet through a potage stamp' scene, the shot was actually performed by famed marksman Herb Parsons meaning there was no need for any clever editing or effects.