Winchester ’73 (1950)
Winchester ’73 (1950)

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.

Release Date: July 12th, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Anthony Mann Actors: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, John McIntire, Will Geer, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, John Alexander, Steve Brodie, James Millican




hough the film starts with a foreword, stating that the following events will be about the Winchester Rifle Model 1873, it’s clear that it takes human individuals to compile a story. And this story has Jimmy Stewart in the lead – a dependable Western inhabitant, even though he never quite seems to exhibit the ruggedness necessary to fully convince of a 19th century cowboy (his clean-shaven face and all-around boyishness contribute to that somewhat incongruous image). As an additional detail at the start, it’s noted that the Winchester ’73 is considered a treasured possession to any cowman, outlaw, peace officer, or soldier; and an Indian would sell his soul to own one – confirming the notion that even in 1950, it’s acceptable to reiterate an inferior status for the longtime enemy of Western heroes.

In Dodge City in 1876, Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his pal “High Spade” Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are greeted by the legendary marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), who insists that all firearms must be deposited at his office. Theirs are just a couple of weapons of a collection of hundreds, as a huge gathering of sharpshooters have conglomerated for a Fourth of July competition, in which the winner will receive a priceless Winchester ’73 (nicknamed “One of a Thousand”). Also in town for the centennial contest is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), a man with a personal conflict with McAdam. As anticipated, these two contestants are the last men standing, continually tying for distance shooting and then coin shooting. Eventually, Lin takes the top prize (with the impossible feat of firing a bullet through a postage stamp affixed to a coin that already has a hole in it), but that exploit merely inspires Dutch to ambush the winner and steal the rifle after Lin returns to his hotel room.

As Dutch and his two cohorts flee (without stopping to pick up their personal firearms), McAdam readies for pursuit. When the thieves rendezvouses with bar owner Riker (John Alexander) two days later, they’re able to buy some replacement guns from a trader – but it costs Dutch the Winchester. Not one to play fair, Dutch rides after the trader with the intention of taking the weapon back with force; but the coveted possession has already traded hands yet again.

Perhaps uncommon for a Western – especially one initiated as a looming duel between established nemeses – there’s a surprising number of characters. Shelley Winters plays a love interest, though initially for the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), while Rock Hudson takes the role of the raiding Indian warrior Young Bull. And then there’s a pinned-down assembly of cavalrymen, led by Sergeant Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen). There’s even the Jameson residence with a wife and two kids, plus ruffian Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea, a particularly nasty antagonist) and his crew of gunmen, and the lawmen chasing after them. All the while, through coincidence and luck, the Winchester becomes the device that ties all of these parties together – though it shares that distinction with Winters, who also seems to shift back and forth between companions.

The film is also something of a mystery, since Lin only hints at the bad blood with Brown, more than halfway into the picture (the actual reveal takes place mere minutes before the movie ends). But, as he’s forced to share the screen with so many other personas, the time to flesh him out adequately just doesn’t exist. There’s even regular references to Custer’s downfall at Little Bighorn by the Sioux, which brings a few historical notes to what could have been just a lengthy hunt for revenge between two bitter rivals. And the finale involves an entirely different Western staple – a bank holdup (at Tascosa). Though “Winchester ’73” contains a nicely action-packed Indian onslaught, a rare flash of blood from a shot soldier, a fantastic death scene for a supporting villain, and an inevitable showdown (and what a volley of gunfire it is!) between the brooding hero and the unapologetically evil archenemy, its focus on multiple batches of people largely takes away from the power of Stewart’s plight (and yet, the purpose is intentional in governing a tale through the use of the titular weapon’s ever-changing ownership). Nevertheless, it manages to encompass the entire spectrum of Western tropes in a brief span of time, which is itself an entertaining endeavor by director Anthony Mann, who was dabbling in the genre after graduating from film noir – and would continue making notable Westerns all throughout the ’50s.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10