Filmsite Movie Review
Winchester '73 (1950)
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Winchester '73 (1950) was the first of five westerns from 1950-1955 (and the only one in black/white) teaming James Stewart with director Anthony Mann. The other four westerns were Universal's Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954), MGM's The Naked Spur (1953), and Columbia Pictures' The Man From Laramie (1955). Originally, however, the film was to be directed by Fritz Lang, who had directed two 20th Century Fox westerns in the early 1940s, including The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941). Director Mann brought some of the characteristics of his previous film-noirs to this modernized western, borrowed from his own gritty, low-budget classics such as T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

The Universal Studios' movie, a unique, noirish black and white "psychological" western, based on a story by Stuart N. Lake, was a Cain and Abel brother-revenge story as well as a serious tale about a man on a vindictive quest (similar to John Ford's classic western The Searchers (1956)). It had all of the stereotypical attributes of an 'oater' (ie., a law-abiding town run by Marshal Wyatt Earp, a shoot-out rifle competition, a decisive poker card-game, a buckboard chase, Indians on the warpath attacking a besieged group of cavalry troopers, a shoot-out between desperados and a posse, a deadly saloon fight, a bank robbery, a frantic horse-chase, and a cliffside rifle duel to the death). Its taglines were:

  • "The Gun That Won The West!"
  • "The Fighting Story of the Gun that Won the West!"

The 92-minute legendary and classic movie with an episodic story-line was noted as the film which revived westerns - it helped to popularize and renew Westerns for the entire decade, and initiated a cycle of more serious-minded western films. In this tale of murder, revenge and deceit, the title character - the high-powered, famed lever-action rifle - changed hands multiple times: from a murderous outlaw who stole the gun, then to a disreputable and immoral Indian gun trader, to a savage young Indian brave-chief (Rock Hudson!), briefly to a young cavalry officer (Tony Curtis!, billed as Anthony Curtis) and a cantankerous old Army Sergeant, to a saloon girl's cowardly fiancee, to a crazed and psychotic killer, and then back to the outlaw before ending up in the hands of its rightful owner.

In actual fact, Stewart had been in a pre-war western, but it was a comedy spoof - director George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939), playing the role of a pacifistic, unarmed Western hero. With this new western role, Stewart was trying to selectively redefine his acting persona by choosing a role that was tougher, darker, edgier and more masculine. He had experienced a series of mediocre post-war flops, including RKO's romantic comedy Magic Town (1947), the musical comedy anthology On Our Merry Way (1948) from UA, another romantic comedy You Gotta Stay Happy (1948) from Universal, and MGM's melodramatic-adventure film Malaya (1949). The initial response to the idea that Stewart would be playing tough-guy western roles was ridicule and cruel snickering. However, he proved his detractors wrong with this and four other Mann westerns. In order to beef up this particular western role, thin and gangly star James Stewart aggressively practiced wielding a lever-action rifle for the shooting scenes.

Studio control of stars significantly eroded when James Stewart signed a precedent-setting independent (or free-lance) two-picture contract with Universal Studios. For both the comedy Harvey (1950) and this western, Stewart would share in the box-office profits (45% of the net profits), instead of receiving his exorbitant requested salary fee of $200,000. [Note: In fact, for all of Stewart's Universal western films (including Bend of the River (1952), and The Far Country (1954)), Stewart took no salary in exchange for a large cut of the profits -- a very lucrative deal.] As a result, he earned increasingly high salaries, became a pioneer of the percentage deal (a performer accepted a reduced or non-existent salary in exchange for a percentage of the box office profits), and was the industry's top box-office star by mid-decade. For Winchester '73 (1950) alone, Stewart reportedly earned between $500,000 and $600,000.

The western received no Academy Awards nominations, although one was especially deserved by cinematographer William Daniels. However, the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) nominated the film's screenplay (by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase) as the Best Written American Western. [Note: Borden Chase had recently co-written the screenplay for Howard Hawks' classic western Red River (1948).] The WGA honor was won instead by director Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950), another western starring James Stewart. [Note: Broken Arrow (1950) was filmed before Winchester '73, but released afterwards.]

One of the film's major stars, Dan Duryea, also appeared in the TV remake, Winchester 73 (1967, TV), but as the "father" character Bart McAdam, opposite Tom Tryon as the 'James Stewart' character Lin McAdam, and John Saxon as his murderous, patricidal brother Dakin McAdam.

Plot Synopsis

The psychological, B/W western opened with title credits above a distant view of two tiny figures riding on horseback over a ridge. An explanatory prologue or title card appeared:

This is the story of the Winchester Rifle Model 1873 "The gun that won the West" To cowman, outlaw, peace officer or soldier, the Winchester '73 was a treasured possession. An Indian would sell his soul to own one...

Preceding a Centennial celebration's marksmanship rifle-shooting contest in Dodge City, Kansas, the main prize was displayed in a store window. A close-up of the butt-stock's metal plate (yet to be engraved with the winner's name), was seen - children and adults alike expressed their delight at the sight of the rare Winchester '73 model ("One of a Thousand") - the contest's top prize:

[Winner's Name to be Engraved Here]
JULY 4th 1876

Two hard-bitten frontiersmen were sitting on horseback, listening to townsfolks' praise for the remarkable gun showcased in the window:

  • Boy, oh, boy, a Winchester '73!
  • What I'd give to have that gun!
  • One of a Thousand? First one I ever seen! But mister, that's a real gun!
  • I heard it took over a year to make it!
  • Yeah. They give the first to President Grant!
  • I'll sure be in good company when I win that one!

The two were Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his faithful sidekick-friend 'High-Spade' Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell). The two had arrived because Lin had anticipated finding someone who would definitely be lured there by the marksmanship contest ("If he isn't here already, that gun'll bring him!"). As they were dismounting, they heard strong and loud protests and complaints from a saloon-dance hall girl (a common film euphemism for prostitute) named Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) who was being dragged to an Overland Line stagecoach by an unidentified resident:

I'm not doing anything now that I haven't been doing for the last six months!...Oh, why don't you pick on the gunslingers and the tinhorn gamblers instead of a girl tryin' to make an honest dollar?

McAdam stepped forward to heroically defend her, and she thanked him with a smile, but realized that she had no choice. The resident explained that Lola was being removed only until the holiday Welcome Celebrations were over, to placate the conservative values of the town, although he said he was "not one of them":

Lola's all right. It's just that some folks in town think the dance hall girls might give the place a bad name over the holiday!

And then he kindly required that McAdam and High-Spade surrender their guns while in the gun-free "cow-town" of Dodge City. The two new arrivals objected vigorously to giving up their weapons to an unknown authority: "You must have a real good reason to ask a man to do a fool thing like that!" The befuddled, benign man then realized he must formally introduce himself - he was the town's US Marshal, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) - portrayed as a folksy, atypical, slightly effeminate Western lawman. He absent-mindedly searched for his tin star in his pocket: "A man could get himself killed hiding his badge like that."

The Marshal's assistant Virgil Earp (Guy Wilkerson) chided his brother about the impoundment of everyone's weapons: "Wyatt, you're gonna get this office so cluttered up with six-guns, a man won't have a place to spit!" Earp mentioned that if McAdam was entering the Rifle Shoot contest, his toughest competition would come from 'Dutch Henry Brown' - to which McAdam replied: "Can't say I recall the name?"

As they entered the town's saloon for McAdam to sign up for the Rifle Shoot, a bad-tempered, surly cowboy instinctively, nervously and defensively drew non-existent six-shooters from his side holsters to fire at McAdam (who reacted similarly). Both men (and all the other males in the town) had been symbolically stripped ("undressed") of their masculinity or phallic-strength mounted on their hips. Marshal Earp identified him: "That's 'Dutch' Henry Brown! I thought you said you didn't know him!" McAdam answered: "I said I didn't recall the name" - the implication was that the mysterious bar patron, "Dutch Henry Brown" (Stephen McNally), had taken an assumed name and that McAdam knew him by another name and that he was the object of a long pursuit. As McAdam signed up for the shooting contest by writing his name in a ledger and paying a two-dollar entry fee, he quipped to the Marshal about using his true identity, as opposed to what 'Dutch' had falsified: "All right if I use my own?" Earp cautioned 'Dutch' that if it was indeed a "personal matter" between McAdam and himself, that it must wait until both left town. To insult the new cowpoke, 'Dutch' ordered a glass of cow's milk for him.

The Centennial competition was presided over by Earp with assistance from Bat Masterson (Steve Darrell) and the Sheriff. Earp held up the prized 1873 Winchester repeating rifle, noting it was "the finest gun in the world." He described how it wasn't for sale, and was a rare specimen since it was "perfect." The Winchester Repeating Arms Company had honored the lever-action repeating gun with a special name: "They call it 'One of a Thousand', and that's a good name. President Grant has got one and Buffalo Bill Cody." The rules for each round were specified for the many contestants. Seven targets were positioned at the end of the street: "Rules for the contest are: three rounds of three shots each to an elimination! High score wins!"

The sixth and seventh contestants in the first group of shooters were McAdam and 'Dutch' respectively, who were very evenly matched. Each hit the bulls-eye target with all three shots in the first round. McAdam claimed his sharpshooting talent came from a "good man" - he was undoubtedly referring to his father. Earp commented: "Looks like you fellas might've learned from the same man!" - a tip off that McAdam and 'Dutch' had identical shooting skills taught to them by their father, and were possibly estranged brothers!

After all rounds were completed, Earp announced a tie between the two finalists: Lin McAdam and 'Dutch'. A shoot-off was held between them with only two targets moved back 25 yards, but each of them again scored three more bulls-eyes. Earp joked: "Looks like we could move this target clear to the next county and they'd still be shootin' even!" A sudden-death shoot-out was conducted with a tossed coin, and another tie ensued. Eventually, McAdam proposed a challenging and risky deal involving only one more daring trick shot. A postage stamp was placed over the hole of a round metal piece recently purchased as part of a necklace from a clownish Indian spectator (Chief Yowlachie). McAdam stated - "If I hit it, I win! If I miss it, I lose! You don't have to shoot!" When the object was tossed into the air as a target, McAdam's shot was decisive, and he was declared the winner of the close contest. After the stock of the highly-coveted gun was to be engraved with his name, McAdam was told that he could pick up the Winchester the next morning.

'Dutch' proposed buying the gun, but his request was rejected, and they exchanged more reproaches - it was inferred that 'Dutch' was being hunted by McAdam for some past wrong, possibly a cold-blooded murder:

Dutch: That's too bad! That's too much gun for a man to have just for shootin' rabbits!
McAdam: Or for shootin' men in the back!

Both men prepared to pull out of town after retrieving their confiscated guns from the Marshal's office. When McAdam returned to his hotel room to get his things before leaving with High-Spade, he was ambushed by 'Dutch'. After a struggle and nearly being choked to death, McAdam's gun was stolen, and 'Dutch' and his two outlaw buddies, Johnny and Ben Wheeler (James Millican), fled from town (without stopping to retrieve their confiscated six-shooters). Earp revived McAdam and realized there would now be a dogged, revenge-seeking search and relentless pursuit for the prized weapon - and for the thieving outlaw!:

I don't know what your quarrel was before, but you can add the rifle to it now!

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