Winchester ’73 (1950) Revisited


Winchester 73 (1950)I’ve watch three James Stewart films in the last week, culminating in Winchester ’73 (1950) which is probably the more iconic of them. Beginning with The Spirit of St Louis (1957) which I watched more out of curiosity than anything, a biography written and directed by   Billy Wilder . It was an interesting effort, the only time that Wilder dabbled with factual events, there were hints of his wit, however watered down by history. If it wasn’t for Stewart at the helm, combined with his past war record in the U.S. Airforce. Hearing some of the sharper lines delivered from Stewart didn’t really have the desired effect. With fiction Wilder is able to have a lot more fun with the characters, only able to do so here through flashbacks that did more for padding the film out as Lindberg made his ground-breaking transatlantic flight. Maybe in the hands of another director more used to biopic’s this could have been something special.

Turning then to The Naked Spur (1953), the third collaboration for   Anthony Mann and James Stewart they hit a slight snag with this lower budget affair. A smaller cast of characters, there’s potential for more tension and drama than there is on-screen. It just doesn’t spark your attention. If we turn back to their first film together Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart’s first straight Western, needing to find a new direction in his career in a post-war world. He has seen the darker side of life whilst at war, which comes through into his performance that show more to the master of the every man. Before he was a bumbling and love-able man who got himself in all kinds of situations. It was It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) changed that for him, a man with good intentions, dreams whose brought to the brink, nearly ending his own life. Never had we seen that side of him. Anthony Mann developed that side of him out in the West where as could “play out all kinds of cide” in the American landscape.

So why watch these two films in reverse order? sheer luck of how the cards were dealt at the time. I needed to remind myself of this classic western which I watched at least 4 years ago. Following not the journey of just men, but that of a gun, a powerful emblem in the West. Part of the constitution to bear arms, it helped the country win the West. Yet today there is a fight for gun-control, there’s not a month that goes by in the States a mass-shooting takes places. There’s a warm place in the hearts of the American public, a protector for the weak, a sign of strength, and danger to the powerless. Going back to the film was a chance to rediscover how rich this film really is. Not just starting a long relationship between actor/director but changing the course of Stewart’s career to be part of the American mythology that is the Western.

I should really start now, set in an dream-like version of the West a shooting contest in Dodge City home of the infamous Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) who doesn’t really add much to the on-screen mythology of the historical figure. He definitely runs the town, ironically with an iron fist in regards to gun-control, his office is full of gun-belts. He is also considerate of the tone of the town, sending barroom singer Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) on her way for the contest, not wanting to lower the tone. Much to the surprise of Lin McAdam (Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) who are in town for McAdam to track down fast-gun Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). On first meeting they naturally go for their guns, met by a feeling of nakedness that men in the West rarely have. Stripped partially of their masculinity and a right to defend it. You can feel something palpable in the room, they share a history that I barely remembered from the first viewing, not wanting to shout it out before the reveal at the end.

This could be the start of a standard Western, a silent stand-off before a show of masculinity in the streets. Naturally Stewart wins the much prized repeating rifle a Winchester 73, a weapon that is even admired by the young boys, part of the image of being a man. The history of the gun in the West is further explored in other films but not the aspect of the objects journey through a film, as it passes from owner to owner. Usually taking on a fictional version of facts of entertainment value. Here we have pure story and journey as it leaves after a fight in town with Brown to then be lost in a game of cards with Joe Lamont (John McIntire) an Indian trader who gambles his life when he tries to hide his find from Young Bull (Rock Hudson) who dies with it in battle. It brushes by Mcadams leaving it for Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) to take it into a gunfight where it in turn looses it.

The journey goes on until the rifle is reunited with Mcadams in a gunfight to end all gunfights between himself and Brown. The big reveal of their past is laid bear in a few scenes and a gunfight that relies more on knowledge that the accuracy of the gun itself. The skill of the man using the weapon truly make it what it is. A tool, is only as good as the man/woman who uses it, if you don’t use it the right way, not just as it was designed, you never unleash its potential or understand it. So why did McAdams want to win the gun? Was it to prove a point to Brown or to himself that he hadn’t lost his edge, the skills he was taught by his father. The journey that happens with the gun proves that it’s just a gun, that what happens to the user was going to happen anyway, it can bring out the best and the worst in us. It’s a tool that can make or break a man in the West.

I had forgotten how action-packed this film is, it has everything you want in a western as we ride on through, never looking back. Bringing together a cast that would work again with Mann and Stewart. A stock company that could even rival John Ford‘s. Even the main female is anything but set-dressing, she has teeth and not afraid to show them. Of course playing the voice of reason in the film, she can stand-up for herself, no one is left on the sidelines which makes this an important Western in the cannon of the classic genre.

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