Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Winchester '73 is what film critics call a key western, for it represents a major turn in
the genre's development. High Noon got all the credit for initiating the 'adult psychological
Western' of the 1950s, but this ambitious Universal film is the real trend-setter, for several
James Stewart re-wrote Hollywood law when he signed up as a major profit participant for this
show, starting a trend that broke studio autonomy in favor of top talent agents.
Produced as an afterthought to Harvey, '73 was a much bigger boxoffice smash, cementing Stewart's
post-war star recovery, and making a hot property out of director Anthony Mann.
In Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) holds a centennial shooting match. Winner Lin
McAdam (James Stewart) takes the prize, a perfect Winchester repeating rifle, only to have it stolen
by the villianous Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Dutch loses it in a card game with a crooked
gambler (John McIntire), who in turn loses both it and his scalp to Indian chief Young Bull (Rock Hudson). Then it
passes over to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), whose new woman Lola Manners (Shelley
Winters) is drawn to Lin. Miller refuses to give up the gun to outlaw Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea),
but Waco takes it anyway, only to have it yanked back from him by Dutch Henry, with whom Waco
attempts to rob a bank. This brings Lin back into the picture again, for an ultimate showdown with
the treacherous Dutch Henry.
Film historian Jim Kitses came from the UK in 1973 to teach the single most valuable class I took at
UCLA. He concentrated on three underappreciated 'Western' directors, Budd Boetticher,
Sam Peckinpah, and Anthony Mann, adjusting the then-current auteurist critical model into a genre
Peckinpah capped the three with his summing-up of the entire Western genre, the other two, especially
Mann, took the mostly unformed ideas in the Western and made them into something worthy of critical
study. He's the most interesting director of Western films this side of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Mann made five Westerns in five years with James Stewart. They share
similar casts and Mann's very distinctive directorial style - the director was already a hot
ticket based on his lowbudget Noir thrillers for Eagle Lion and MGM. A demanding director
with ambitions to greatness, Mann eventually graduated to epic films in the early 60s, but
for his Stewart films, he molded somewhat generic scripts (most notably by Borden Chase) into films with a very strong
Winchester '73 is a multiple revenge tale with a circular La Ronde structure. We follow
the exploits of a prize rifle as it precipitates violence in a cross-section of
frontier characters. The story has a prime example of the 'binary' genre character. (slight
spoiler) James Stewart and Stephen McNally are brothers and moral opposites, one bad, one good.
It's a Cain and Abel opposition, because McNally killed their father. As this is played out in Western
terms, dad's only contribution was to teach them to shoot, which is why they score identically on
a rifle range. It's an NRA dream family. This binary character idea worked well in the Western
genre, better than it had in gangster stories, where one brother would be a crook and another a
priest or a cop, etc. In one form or another it's at the center of all of Peckinpah's Western heroes:
Westrum, Amos Charles Dundee/Benjamin Tyreen, Pike Bishop/Deke Thornton, William Bonney/Pat Garrett.
The subsidiary characters are spin-offs who compliment or comment on the conflict between the
binary heroes. Dan Duryea is
smarter than McNally, but wisely knows he's not as tough; Charles Drake is a pantywaist suitable
only for humiliation (made to wear a woman's apron, of course). Will Geer, Millard Mitchell and even
J.C. Flippen are various kinds of father figures (thank you, Phil Hardy). Out on the plains there's
the Army, well-intentioned but inexperienced Easterners who need guidance from a frontiersman like
and the completely savage Indians, like Rock Hudson's idealized brave who only knows White men
thorugh the perfidy of the weasely John McIntire.
Stewart's character claims to only be out for revenge, to kill his brother, but he ends up being
All Things to the 'good' characters in the story. He's a buddy to Millard Mitchell, and tougher than Waco
Johnnie Dean -the scene where he smashes Duryea's head on the bar shows Stewart to be an equal when it
comes to sadism. 1
Stewart lends his knowledge of the Indians to grizzled Army sergeant Flippen. The saloon girl who
wants children but is disgusted by her cowardly husband is of course immediately attracted to Stewart.
And his moral superiority to his murderous brother is what turns the end confrontation in his favor.
Winchester '73 outraged the feminists at UCLA, who bridled at its wholesale championing of
conservative values. They were right of course, but it's important to point out
that the wishy-washy liberalism of High Noon was a drop in the bucket compared to the
overwhelming preponderance of pictures exalting the status quo. Winchester '73 is indeed a
wrapup of conservative conventions, right from the first scene where bad girl Shelley Winters is
being run out of town, Stagecoach-style. The Indians don't come any more stupid or savage
than here. We see one cigar-store clown in town, and Rock Hudson's braves wait to attack at
dawn (a pervasive falsehood) and then ride in suicidal charges to be shot down as in a penny arcade.
Unlike some of his successive scripts, in this film Borden Chase keeps the Aesops Fables
moralizing to a minimum. But the
sense of absolute righteousness was disturbing to European critics looking to use Westerns to
distill the American character. Stewart is a relentless searcher with a grudge, but he prevails
over his brother mainly because he's convinced he has an unequivocal moral right to
kill him. This is what Westerns are all about - a cultural myth that many Americans take as a kind
of substitute religion.
The Anthony Mann - Borden Chase style is unmistakable. Complacency and white hats are out, there's no time to relax,
and the character with the neurotic jitter is likely to be the hero. Stewart and and McNally slap empty
leather at first sight (a great moment), which points up the fact that although Good and Evil are
absolutes in Mann's world, violence is a universal given. This also being the most moralistic of
Mann also judges his characters strictly by their actions. All the males have different positions on the
masculine superiority scale - Earp over McAdam, Dutch Henry over Waco, Waco over Steve. There's a
pecking order to everything. By the time we get down to the third-string baddies, they're fools
who will rush out into a hail of posse bullets, just on Waco's snide say-so.
Finally, there's Mann's use of violent landscapes. The fighters go out of their way to
conclude their rifle duel in the craggy rocks, a favorite Mann location exploited most strongly in
The Naked Spur. The outcroppings are treacherous and unforgiving, and vertical - as opposed
to the horizontal of the desert and plains. Mann goes in for sadistic detail, such as Dutch Henry's
use of ricochet-ing bullets to trap McAdam between two rocks, like a victim in a torture device. 3
The feminists also nailed the Shelley Winters character for encapsuling every frontier woman
from her instant attraction to kids, to the 'saving the last bullet for yourself' bit. But they didn't
pick up on the best dirty joke in a 1950 film, when Dan Duryea finds himself trapped in a farmhouse.
He's praising his two underlings' sick sense of humor when he says, 'What a pair!', but Mann then
has him turn around and cast his eyes on Shelley for the first time, and give a big doubletake-leer in
reaction to seeing her figure. The framing is perfect, and I can't believe that most males in the
audience didn't get the joke. All that's lacking is an acknowledging return look from Winters.
Winchester '73 is great for star watching. Besides the rather embarassing screen opportunity
for Rock Hudson, paying his dues in feathers and body paint, there's pretty boy Tony Curtis saying his
first couple of lines of screen dialogue. This film and A Double Life were also the
breakthrough roles for Shelley Winters. Soon-to-be-blacklisted Will Geer is a great Wyatt Earp, and
later Mann regulars Steve Brodie, John McIntire, Chuck Roberson and Jay C. Flippen contribute
excellent turns. I always smile at the pairing of Abner Biberman's Mexican outlaw, with the inimitable
John Doucette - always an unsung Western baddie with that scowl and deep voice, like an irate
Universal's DVD of Winchester '73 is an adequate encoding of an okay source. The film doesn't
look as though it's been remastered since the good laserdisc version from 14 years ago, and the
bit rate is sometimes on the light side, adding grain and not helping with the overall sharpness.
This only becomes apparent on a large monitor, but what are these high-resolution discs supposed
to be for, anyway?
James Stewart's 1989 commentary is a free-form discussion that is good, but without much detail.
Stewart starts on topic but is soon off on tangents about Alfred Hitchcock and just about anything else he
can think of. The commentary form allows us to hear what he's like beyond his usual short & prepared
speeches, and he comes off as a pleasant fellow. Winchester '73 started him off as a significant
shareholder of MCA, and he does a good job of disguising the fact that his acting career from here
on was mostly a set of savvy business decisions, with infrequent departures for Art with Hitchcock, etc.
There's also a trailer, and English, French and Spanish subs. Savant will be reviewing Destry Rides
Again, Bend of the River, and The Far Country in (hopefully) quick succession. The
menus for all the current batch of Universal Westerns are accompanied by generic canned music cues.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Winchester '73, rates:
Supplements: James Stewart interview commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003
1. Mann's rough violence
earned him charges of sadism in his earlier noirs. In the excellent Raw Deal, for instance,
a fight between two men has a similiar moment where one is going to force the other's face into the
antler points of a stuffed deer head, eyes first.
2. My favorite Doucette moment is when he's cast totally against type
(on purpose) as a Phillistine architect brought on to dumb-down Gary Cooper's designs in
The Fountainhead. When Cooper explains that his artistic vision shouldn't be subjected to
the second-guessing of lesser talents, Doucette objects in his best frontier-moron voice: "Why not?
We wanna express our creativity too!" Cast in almost 150 movies, Doucette is easily remembered as the
General that George C. Scott bullies on Sicily in
3. Critics make a big deal of the open flatland vs. craggy rocks in John
Ford's The Searchers. The clear sightlines of the flatland make for fair contests and simple
moral decision-making. Up in the rocks is where the troubled & wounded hide, and where the atrocities take
place, such as the rape-murder of Lucy. When Ethan Edwards rides down his niece Debbie, the flat plains
suddenly transform into a steep hill, and Ethan decides to spare Debbie right in front of a deep cave,
representing the ultimate in psychotic 'scenery', or perhaps his secret desire to ravage Debbie himself.
Are these empty critics' games, or literary analysis?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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