Winchester ‘73

Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, from a story by Stuart Lake
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Released in 1950

Winchester ‘73 is set in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer’s loss has triggered a growing fear among frontiersmen of well-armed Indian tribes. The solution is greater firepower – this is America after all – and the Winchester (18)73 repeating (semi-automatic) rifle is seen as the solution. Regarded as the ‘weapon that won the west’ the film focuses on a special edition of the rifle that has been so highly crafted it’s a “One of One Thousand” gun desired by anyone and everyone who encounters it.  

An exploration of greed, betrayal and revenge, Winchester ‘73 sees Jimmy Stewart as crack marksman Lin McAdam, who sets out to avenge the death of his father at the hands of ‘Dutch Henry’ Brown (played by Stephen McNally). Stewart and his best friend ‘High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) track Dutch from Dodge City in central Kansas through Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) to the Texas panhandle township of Tascosa, and eventually a high stakes hilltop shoot-out.

Veteran director Anthony Mann was early to mid-career when this was made, while Stewart was already an established A-list star. The pair would go on to make seven films together. Remarkably, Winchester ‘73 was one of four features starring Stewart to be released in 1950. He was in fine form and the studio knew it, giving him approvals over casting and directing hires as well as a share of profits.

Writers Robert L Richards and Borden Chase were recognised at the 1951 Writers Guild of America WGA Screen Awards, with the film nominated for ‘Best Written American Western’. The film was classified as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and added to the US National Film Registry in 2015. Two years before Winchester ‘73 was released Chase had won an Oscar nomination for another Western, Red River, and a look at his lengthy list of credits suggests that crime and westerns were his stock in trade. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Roberts was forced to write under a variety of pseudonyms before retiring with only 16 films to his name. 

Winchester ‘73 begins with Lin winning a marksmanship competition, defeating fellow sharpshooter Dutch. The competition’s prize – the “One of One Thousand” rifle – is promptly stolen by Dutch and his sidekicks who escape Dodge City, pursued by Lin and High-Spade. Along the way, the rifle goes through several pairs of hands, becoming a poisoned chalice for each of its temporary owners.

There’s plenty of breathtaking scenery, gorgeously filmed imagery, solid action sequences and a genuinely interesting reveal that made this a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience. There were only a couple of downsides for me. Shelly Winters’ role as a most-platonic love interest/tropey damsel-in-distress left her looking for things to do, while Rock Hudson playing chief Young Bull was awful.

Elsewhere, a raft of talented character actors hand-chosen by Stewart chew up the scenery. They allow the leading man to build a nuanced portrait of a white hat-wearing good guy looking to right a family wrong. The stakes are huge and what a character thinks they want just might be the thing that brings them undone.

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