Discovering ‘Winchester ‘73’
Winchester '73 (1950) starring James Stewart is one of those elusive classic movies I had read about but never seen. Unlike other seminal movies, such as Citizen Kane, The Searchers or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which I immediately could get a sense of the plot or theme without having seen it, I could never learn what this Western is about, let alone what its detractors, admirers or fans think Winchester '73 means. That plus the notion of brash Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure, Lolita, A Place in the Sun) in a picture with one of my favorite actors, James Stewart (Rear Window, The Mortal Storm, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), intrigued me. A Western with a unique cast and elusive theme with a great actor? Universal's Winchester '73 was easily one of my top picks this spring at the Turner Classic Movies festival in Hollywood (see my screening notes at the end of the article).
Two figures on horseback appear in the first frame, which bookends the final scenes. Winchester '73, with a reputation for being among the first of the so-called anti-Westerns, purports in this sense to be about two types of men. Interestingly, and I'm not saying I agree with this premise, it's more of a fable expressing that we're all alike. More precisely, that Americans are all alike and not necessarily in a good way. The action starts in the legendary Kansas town of Dodge City, where Will Geer (The Waltons) as Wyatt Earp confiscates guns upon entry into town. Whatever the Constitution, it's mandatory in this town in this context. Stewart's character, accompanied by a buddy in a quest to get a dastardly man in black (Dan Duryea), consents.
The date, too, is significant: it's July 4, 1876, America's centennial. In celebration, Dodge City under Wyatt Earp as the lawman sponsors a shooting contest. So, right off, the idea here is that Americans are fascinated with guns and with actively using them. Winchester '73, directed by Anthony Mann, doesn't take this lightly. The movie sets up the contest with fanfare, neither minimizing nor maximizing the townspeople's interest or obsession with guns. First prize is a rifle; specifically, the rifle referred to in the film's title. In case you miss that this movie's about America and Americans, more than once the name of the president of the United States of America, Ulysses S. Grant, appears and lingers on screen.
Before you jump to conclusions either way, however, Winchester '73 is not implicitly, let alone explicitly, anti-American, though it may tilt this way by default. The setup includes crucial character scenes in which Stewart's avenger accepts a trade with an entrepreneurial boy who practices capitalism. Stewart’s character displays a small act of benevolence toward a lady of ill repute (Winters, of course). At this point, the audience has every reason to believe that his character is a man of honor and distinction.
The tense contest between Duryea's Black Bart type and Stewart's avenging angel are terrific as propellant Western drama and as Americana. Besides references to U.S. Grant, there's a humorous Indian amid other character types, including a speculator, and, besides Earp, there are mentions of other Western legends such as Buffalo Bill Cody. General George Custer and the Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn and other cowboys-and-Indians face-offs come into play (look for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson in unusual roles for both actors). Gambling, Indian trading and crime form the other central episodes. These tales spin from the conflict driving Winchester '73, which weaves in and out of the vignettes while loosely stringing them together through the title's piece of advanced weaponry.
With a story partly written by Borden Chase (Red River) it's all guns and America, complete with a Civil War plot tie-in and harmless, homespun wisdom, such as the notion that it’s enriching to have friends. “Thanks, no, we’ll ride”, Stewart says with characteristic individualism before he goes off again. What it adds up to is not anti-gun (observe a lingering look between Winters and Stewart over what a "lucky bullet" can do to spare someone of savagery) as much as it is pro-amoralism.
Ultimately, the moral grayness muffles Winchester '73. For its engrossing setup, conflict, action, drama and implication, it flattens into a predictable showdown. Winchester '73 ends with another shooting contest, this one between two figures embedded in the rocks. It is skillfully arranged and photographed. Yet, having mitigated the moral center, what remains is a shell surrounded by a cluster of otherwise compelling slices of Americana, social commentary and classic Western fare. This may be the movie’s point; that guns drive men to alienation. But its conflict is anti-climactic. This may be why Winchester '73 like its title endures as a rarity — with a blank, off the shelf finish.
A world premiere restoration of Winchester '73 screened on April 12, 2019 at the number one theater of TCL's Chinese theaters complex on the upper level of Hollywood Boulevard's epic Hollywood & Highland shopping complex. The picture was introduced during the 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival by author and scholar Jeremy Arnold, who perfectly accounted for the film's main facts before the presentation. Arnold's breezy intro left me wanting to know more about this 1950 movie, which is part of his book on TCM’s The Essentials.