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.