If you’re a fan of western movies and American history in the west in general, two firearms come to mind as the most iconic of the era. First? The Colt .45, a six-shot revolver made famous by gunfighters and cowboys. The second? The Winchester 1873 model, a repeating rifle that earned the nickname ‘the gun that won the west.’ The iconic rifle gets a starring role in an excellent western from 1950, Winchester ’73.
It’s July 4, 1876 in Dodge City with the town hosting a shooting contest bringing riflemen from all over the country. The prize? A so-called perfect Winchester rifle, dubbed the one in a 1,000 rifle. Among the competitors is Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a rancher/cowboy who’s a deadshot with a rifle. He wins via tiebreaker against a man from his past, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), but Dutch isn’t having it. He and two fellow gunfighters rob Lin of the prized rifle, racing out into the desert. Lin and his partner, High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), aren’t far behind. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Little Bighorn, reports of Indians on the warpath are escalating. Can Lin and High Spade track down the man and the gun while still keeping their hair?
John Wayne had John Ford, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, and James Stewart had Anthony Mann. The star-director combo team here for the first of five movies they would make together (6 if you add The Glenn Miller Story), and it’s a gem. I’d have to go back and rewatch all five, but this definitely belongs up at the top. At 92 minutes, it is an episodic story with an ensemble cast that moves along at a quick pace. There is almost the feel of a TV show with 15 or 20-minute segments as the prized rifle finds itself in new hand one after another. How though? That’s the fun. The Winchester ends up being a star, jumping from person to person with some bad luck, greed, violence, betrayals and some blood dotting the way.
Stewart rarely gets the credit he deserves in the western genre. Other than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he didn’t star in a classic western. This movie is close, as is The Naked Spur, and there’s a handful that are really, really good. My point? He plays a great anti-hero of sorts, although here he’s in more typical hero mode. His Lin — for lack of a better description — is a good dude, if a touch obsessed with exacting some revenge. His backstory is familiar but well-handled and feels a good twist. It’s leisurely revealed, but it’s Jimmy Stewart. You know he’s a good guy. His chemistry with Mitchell’s High Spade is excellent too, two driven cowboys who are stubborn, loyal and sturdy.
What appealed to me is that Mann’s film uses a whole bunch of genre conventions (you could say stereotypes) but manages to breathe some new, fresh life into it. Case in point is the cast, with the revenge-seeking cowboy, the saloon hall girl with a heart of gold, the unhinged gunfighter, the loyal sidekick and so many more. Everyone gets almost equal screen-time throughout. Look for Shelley Winters as Lola, the saloon girl, Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, a psychotic gunfighter, McNally as Dutch Henry, Charles Drake as Steve Miller, Lola’s fiance, John McIntire as gunrunner Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Marshal Wyatt Earp, J.C. Flippen as a cavalry sergeant and a young Rock Hudson as an Indian chief.
Also look for Tony Curtis and James Best as young cavalry troopers, Steve Brodie and James Millican as members of Dutch’s gang, and John Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson late as a potential bank robber. Familiar face Ray Teal has a shadow-marked supporting part as a marshal leading a posse.
‘Winchester’ covers a fair amount of mileage in its brisk 92-minute running time. The early shootout is a highlight, but there’s also a manipulative gunrunner, an Indian attack on a cavalry patrol, a posse chasing bandits, a bank robbery, a not forced (thankfully) love story, and a genuine good twist late. Filmed in black and white, ‘Winchester’ has an almost artsy look — plenty of shadow and silhouette, almost a noir western — and definitely capitalizes on the Arizona shooting locations, including Old Tucson.
Held in high regard by many, ‘Winchester’ still doesn’t get the classic attention it probably should. It’s a great western, entertaining with some action but also well-written and well-executed. Highly recommended.