johnlink ranks WINCHESTER ’73 (1950)

I usually don’t run out to see Westerns. I find them often to be cliched and similar. I suppose one could say that about most any genre, horror and thriller particularly, but the benefits of the Western usually don’t speak to me like the potential to find a great horror flick or a great thriller. On the other hand, I like the Jimmy Stewart Westerns I have seen. He is a different kind of Western hero, a more reluctant tough guy. So when WINCHESTER ’73 popped up on my radar, it sounded like a unique enough entry to give it a go. Incidentally, this is my 100th movie of 2014!


I watched WINCHESTER ’73 (1950) on 7.12.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

WINCHESTER ’73 tells two stories which start at a single point, diverge, and reunite. Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) is in Dodge City looking to confront Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Unfortunately, the Marshall there is some guy named Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), who makes everyone turn in their guns upon getting into town. While there, a contest is held for a special Winchester, one nicknamed ‘one of a thousand’, which is described as the perfect gun. McAdam wins the gun, but Dutch Henry later ambushes him and takes it before riding out of town.

From there, the story follows to separate threads. The first continues to tell the story of McAdam hunting down Brown. The second follows the Winchester as it changes hands several times. It goes from Brown to an Indian trader (John McIntire) to an Indian Chief (a war-painted Rock Hudson), to a somewhat cowardly lover (Charles Drake), to a gunslinger who calls himself Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) before finding its way back to Brown where the two threads can find themselves again.

There is also a prostitute, Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) who serves as sort of the glue between the two stories. She is in Dodge City to meet McAdam as she is being shipped out of town by Earp. She is riding with her lover Steve when the Chief ambushes them, which reunites her with McAdam for awhile. Steve meets up with Waco Johnny who then takes the woman into town to meet Brown, where everyone gets back together again.

While all this sounds like an amazing amount of coincidence, the storytelling (as overseen by Director Anthony Mann) breezes by with such a nice pace that the audience hardly notices. There are enough different people in this story to keep the groupings constantly fresh. Those characters are all fun to watch too, which is often rare in a Western. The Chief gets to make his point, Brown’s two henchmen are often the voice of reason which keep Brown in line, Waco Johnny is vindictive to the people he can be while also knowing his place in the hierarchy. McAdam’s riding partner and friend, High Spade (Millard Mitchell), is an old hoss who has a small smile while everything unfolds. He understands ‘the way of the west’, and deals with fake tough guys the same way he deals with everything else: politely and quietly.

The one maddening cliche, which is the downfall of many a Western, is the depiction of the savage Native American speaking in chopped English, scalping people, and being general a faceless evil. They do give the Chief one scene where he pleads the case of the Indian versus the White Man. Yet, a later battle scene gives us waves of faceless Indians happily riding into certain death as they scream from their horses. While WINCHESTER ’73 isn’t one of the most egregious examples of racism (that would still be John Wayne’s THE SEARCHERS), it certainly wins no points for sensitivity.


Other than that, though, this is a Western which handles its cliches well. The final gun battle is both personal and distant for reasons learned in the film. It’s end is almost anti-climatic, cheating us of a chance to have a contrived emotional scene before one or the other dies. Instead, the ending is sharp and with out satisfactory emotional resolution which, to be honest, is a much more realistic depiction of how these things would go.

I found myself liking WINCHESTER ’73 the more it went on. Winters plays the newly not-a-prostitute with a fire that keeps her from being just the love interest. She is a woman who stands up to dangerous men in a world where one has to have a certain amount of gumption to try such a thing. Stewart is the captain of this particular ship, but his crew also does much of the heavy work. Stewart’s reluctant hero act suits this film very well, there are plenty of characters in this willing to fill the tough guy role. The villains are bad, but also are allowed certain glimpses of humanity.

The Winchester serves as a symbol of the arbitrariness of survival in the west. It really is not even used to kill. Instead, it represent the best gun in the land. Turns out, it doesn’t matter if you have the best gun or not. In fact, sometimes having that gun makes you an unnecessary target. People die for pride, they die for revenge, they die for money, and sometimes they die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, it is safe to say that WINCHESTER ’73 is one of the 50s era Westerns worth giving a look at. While perhaps not one of the textbook classics of the genre, it does so much well (and with a sense of newness) that it doesn’t land too far away from that list.




FINAL SCORE: 7.5 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on July 12, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: