Starring: James Stewart, Stephen McNally, Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell
Director: Anthony Mann
Mood: If you just want to watch ‘a Western’ and can’t explain it any further but need a movie that will thoroughly satisfy everything you didn’t know you had in mind.
Nothing compares to that feeling when you’ve just watched the perfect Western.
Oh sure, your wedding day or the birth of a child might be up there. But if you’ve landed on this website, I know you know exactly what I mean – the glorious satisfaction experienced when a Western checks all the right boxes and leaves you blissfully, contentedly full.
Winchester ‘73 is one of those movies.
Last night I was debating which of the Westerns I borrowed off my dad to watch, and Googled “Winchester 73”. Next thing you know, I’m reading a Field & Stream article called ‘The Gun that Won the West’ and getting super caught up in the backstory of the New Model of 1873.
And that’s the best way to get psyched for this movie: read about the gun! The rifle is the STAR; James Stewart and all the other guys are merely vessels to carry it around. The more you know about the Model ‘73, the better you’ll appreciate the story of Winchester ‘73.
This movie has everything we love about the genre, and it’s all done extremely well. Whether you’re a big fan of Western movies or an even bigger fan of Western firearms, you need this in your collection.
Winchester ‘73 opens in Dodge City. Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his partner High Spade (Millard Mitchell) are hunting Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), and believe that he’ll be drawn to the city’s shooting contest. The grand prize is a shiny new Winchester.
Lin and Dutch enter the contest and hit increasingly difficult bullseyes, with Lin making an impressive shot to take the win. But Dutch jumps him and flees town – with the gorgeous Winchester in tow.
- Fun Fact #1: Lin’s winning shot is spoofed by James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff.
What unfolds is the story of a rifle so desirable that people will do anything to get their hands on it. Dutch loses it to a trader, who loses it to the warrior Young Bull, and so on until while in the hands of a notorious outlaw, the Winchester finds its way back to Dutch.
And all the while, Lin and High Spade have been calmly chasing Dutch – when you find out why, it’s a delicious twist served right on time for an epic showdown.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western with such a unique plot device as Winchester ‘73. When I said that the actors are just vessels, I meant it.
The way that characters are introduced is when they encounter the gun. There are lots of scenes that don’t involve Lin at all, because the focus is on the people who currently hold the Model 73. It’s like opening doors into different Old West walks of life and meeting all these colourful Western archetypes, linked by the presence of one iconic friggin’ gun.
Apparently Shelley Winters, who played saloon girl Lola Manners, didn’t think much of Winchester ‘73 for that exact reason. She said, “”Here you’ve got all these men… running around to get their hands on this goddamn rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture?”
But that’s what makes it so fun to watch. The final scene is the classic ‘dame runs up to man after shootout and embraces him’, but for one key difference: she’s clutching him, and he’s looking over to the left at the gun. It’s bloody brilliant.
I think I’m officially a huge James Stewart fan – like, we’re at a place in our Western relationship where I can start calling him Jimmy.
He’s in his absolute prime in Winchester ‘73. It was made 10+ years after his first Western, Destry Rides Again, and in the decade between he made numerous films that are now considered masterpieces, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.
But Stewart had also made a bunch of flops, and credits Winchester ‘73 as redefining his entire career.
Audiences were shocked to find that Stewart, with his wiry physique, could be an Old West badass. That impression was carefully orchestrated by Stewart and director Anthony Mann: in an early scene Lin grabs Dutch Henry and slams his face down on a bar, and that’s Stewart’s first rough physical act in a movie.
- Fun Fact #2: Stewart filmed Broken Arrow, another of my favourite Westerns, before Winchester ‘73, but it was released later in 1950. If it had come out first, it would be the film that redefined Stewart’s career.
Mann said that Stewart practiced so hard with the rifle that his knuckles bled, determined to give us an authentic vibe. A double was only used for the trick shots in the shooting contest, otherwise Stewart was the one firing the gun in the movie.
Oh right, this is a review of Winchester ‘73 and not a fan piece about Jimmy Stewart. Sorry!
Honestly, every performance in this movie is fantastic and on-brand.
I particularly enjoyed the quietly strong friendship between High Spade and Lin, and how McNally’s portrayal balanced Stewart’s with subtle hints of warmth. Dan Duryea is damn good as Dutch Henry, giving you a fully realized and believable nemesis. Jay C. Flippen is also a good mid-movie change of pace as the kindly Sgt. Wilkes.
And despite her protests, Shelley Winters is so begrudgingly enjoyable as Lola that I added her to my roundup of the best female Western roles.
There’s never a moment where Lola is meek or delicate. Winters is fiesty and blunt, and you can feel her inner eye-rolls through each of her withering looks. If a man acts a fool, she’s going to give him a piece of her mind.
There are only two weak links in Winchester ‘73. One is Rock Hudson as Young Bull – he’s a brawny white dude trying to emulate a Native warrior, but thankfully he has little dialogue and isn’t in it for long. The other is Will Geer as Wyatt Earp. His enthusiastic grandpa-type is no proper Wyatt Earp, and Geer admitted at the time that he knew he was miscast.
Winchester ‘73 has a final showdown that uses every inch of the natural Arizona landscape, pitting man against man-plus-Model 73. And leading up to that showdown is a deliciously drawn-out sequence of each man galloping desperately across desert scenery.
The plot twist gives the whole thing a great purpose that takes the linear journey of the Model 73, and brings it full circle to Lin’s first encounter with Dutch in Dodge City and the dialogue during that shooting contest.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably already a fan and are just enjoying all this praise for this excellent movie. I don’t know what else to say except that I need to own this movie, and that if you look in the dictionary under “Western” – Winchester ‘73 should be what you find.