Wednesday Western: ‘Winchester ’73’ (1950)

Riders appear on the horizon, treading a cliffside. Their mission is serious, you can tell by their pace. And the soundtrack is ominous, and the font of the opening credits is ornate Western, not the loud, garish lettering of the era. So, their journey must be a dark one. Then, you blink and they’re laughing with a crowd in Dodge City.

Like most of Anthony Mann’s work, “Winchester ‘73” contains an impressive variety of human behavior.

Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) is on a hunt for … something, or someone.

We don’t know why, only that he won’t stop until violence reaches its limit. Luckily, his accomplice, High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), is fun and light-hearted, though ruthless when he needs to be.

This pursuit leads these two lonesome riders to Dodge City, on the centennial of America, its 100th anniversary with the Declaration of Independence.

As part of the celebrations, the town hosts a shooting competition. The prize: a rifle. The ceremony is officiated by the legendary Wyatt Earp.

A title card at the start of the movie reads:

“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.”

The best of the titles of these Westerns are bold, mysterious, clever, and, most of all, thematic. In “Stagecoach,” the platform for the human drama is a stagecoach. “The Searchers” is about people searching.

On its surface, “Winchester ’73” is about, well, the famed Winchester ’73, the gun that won the West. Specifically, it’s about a Model 1873 “One of OneThousand” rifle that will be awarded to the winner of a shooting contest on July 4, 1876, in Dodge City, Kansas.

High-Spade: We’ve hit a lot of towns, Lin. What makes you think he’ll be here?

Lin McAdam: He’ll be here.

High-Spade: We’ve been wrong before.

Lin McAdam: He’ll be here.

High-Spade: On account of that?

Lin McAdam: If he isn’t here already, that gun’ll bring him.

It’s a simple story: Two men are locked in a rivalry that can only end in death, and neither is willing to surrender.

At first glance, these two rivals are identical, like archetypal brothers. Slowly, we realize that one of them is lawful and the other is lawless. The chase leads us through the frontier. All the while, a prized gun bounces along the same trajectory, caught up in all sorts of wild scenarios.

This whirlwind begins when Lin and Frankie encounter their enemy, hiding behind the alias Dutch Henry Brown. Naturally, this spills over into the shooting competition.

I don’t want to ruin the premise, because it’s fantastic. I’ll only say that the film moves through the Old West, and Rock Hudson plays an Indian chief.

McAdam says at one point, slotting ammo into a rifle as his companion Frankie Wilson asks him whether he enjoys murder: “Some things a man has to do, so he does ‘em.”

Is the Winchester some kind of maddening force that provokes all the resultant violence?

Where you can find it

“Winchester ‘73” is pleasantly easy to find:

Amazon Prime Video

Hulu

Starz

Philo

AppleTV

Google Play – $3.99 to rent

Fandango at Home – $3.99 to rent

What makes a Winchester a Winchester?

Thanks to some clever PR by Winchester, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle became known as “The Gun That Won the West.” To be clear, the title is warranted.

The lever action is tight and quick, with capacity to hold 15 rounds in the tube magazine that feeds the barrel. These brass frame repeaters are a joy to shoot — accurate, versatile, light.

Hickock45 devotes more than a few videos to this mystical piece of equipment.

The Model 1873 is connected to icons of the era including Billy the Kid, Theodore Roosevelt and ”Buffalo Bill” Cody.

According to American Rifleman, production of the Winchester 1873 continued until 1923. In that time, Winchester sold about 720,000 1873 Models, which originally cost about $50 (the equivalent of about $1,300 today).

In 1875, Winchester released a pricier, more finely crafted “One of One Thousand” Model 1873, which was limited to 136 available rifles.

The even higher grade “One of One Hundred” was even rarer, with fewer than 10 entering circulation.

Anthony Mann reported that Jimmy Stewart had devoted himself to becoming an expert with the Winchester and that Stewart “was magnificent walking down a street with a Winchester rifle cradled in his arm. And he was great too at actually firing the gun. He studied hard at it. His knuckles were raw with practicing.”

Three in the bullseye for Lin McAdam

His entire life, Jimmy Stewart loved to build model airplanes, a hobby he would share with his best friend Henry Fonda. As a boy, he loved aviation.

He wanted to be a Navy pilot. Instead, he went to Princeton, where he met Fonda. Together, they went to New York City in an attempt to land a role on Broadway, then Fonda moved to Hollywood. Stewart joined him later. He greeted Fonda with a model airplane they had been assembling.

In Los Angeles, Stewart took flight lessons, accruing over 300 hours in the cockpit of his Stinson Voyager.

He was among the first group of Americans to be drafted, in autumn of 1940. He nearly didn’t make the cut because he was underweight. They turned him away. This riled him up. He ate like a hog until he passed the weight minimum.

In 1941, a month after winning the Best Actor Oscar, the 32-year-old officially enlisted in the Army, the first Hollywood celebrity to do so. But not the first Stewart: His father fought in the Spanish-American War, both grandfathers fought in the Civil War — Stewart came from a line of U.S. soldiers that could be traced back to the Revolutionary War.

Nine months later, 353 Japanese aircraft and bombers attacked Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, he led a squadron of B-24 Liberators into the European theater. He led 20 combat missions.

When he returned home in late 1945, he had risen from private to colonel. Besides the propaganda films he participated in, he hadn’t done any acting since before the war. Haunted by the nagging doubt that he wasn’t a talented actor, Stewart was hesitant to return to the silver screen. He even considered taking a job at his father’s hardware store instead.

Thank God he didn’t, or else he wouldn’t have played George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” his first film after returning from combat.

When “Winchester ‘73” began shooting in 1949, Stewart hadn’t appeared in a Western since “Destry Rides Again” (1939).

All this time, Stewart remained active in the Army Reserve, eventually rising to brigadier general. He served for nearly three decades, until mandatory retirement at age 60. In 1985, President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Brokeback lawman

I’m fascinated by the politics of actors who appeared in Westerns. Today’s Hollywood is ideologically uniform, blandly identical. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the political dimensions of Hollywood were far more dynamic.

It’s one more connection between the Old West and Hollywood.

When Lin McAdam (Stewart) and High-Spade Frankie arrive in Dodge City, they balk at the demands that they hand over their guns.

Their attitude changes when the quiet, unimposing sheriff making the request introduces himself as Wyatt Earp.

McAdam grumbles, “Awful lot of law for one cow town.”

Earp responds cheerfully, “Well, this is the sort of cow town that needs a lot of law.”

Will Geer plays Earp, and he does so wonderfully.

But Geer himself was nothing like Earp. He shared very little with most of the characters he played in Westerns, including two upcoming Wednesday Western features: Budd Boetticher’s “Comanche Territory,” starring Randolph Scott, and “Lust for Gold.” He also had a minor role in “Union Pacific,” cousin to “Stagecoach.”

Geer was a fascinating and, well, radical guy.

He was a gay — or bisexual — left-wing activist bohemian and briefly a communist.

What an incredible actor, to excel in the role of staid Western lawmen. In “Broken Arrow,” he plays antagonist to Jimmy Stewart.

The man lived an exceptionally wild life.

He befriended Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives in the 1930s, eager to join their socialist rebellion.

In 1951, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Committee. He refused to testify.

He founded Theatricum Botanicum after being blacklisted. It became a haven for an entire scatter of blacklisted creatives.

He went on to play Grandpa Zeb in “The Waltons.”

He died at 76. His family supposedly sang “This Land Is Your Land” and recited Robert Frost poetry to Geer on his deathbed.

Ain’t cow’s milk good enough?

Of the many things I adore about “Winchester ‘73” — and there are a ton — my favorite is probably its humor. Such a natural film. Such a joy to watch.

Part of its excellence emerges in the moments when groups of people are laughing together. It happens a lot. Notice it, and enjoy the powerful writing involved here.

With the script by Borden Chase (a name you’ll see plenty more of in this series), there’s a remarkable array of emotions at work.

Humor pops up out of nowhere. Like the part where the Indian bites into the one-dollar coin, Jimmy Stewart says, laughing, “I thought he had me beat.”

Or the portrayal of Bat Masterson as Wyatt Earp’s nagging deputy.

Which is shocking, because it’s also an incredibly serious movie. A tragic one, in many ways.

Dan Duryea’s performance is breathtaking, right down to his hyena laugh.

Mitchell is every inch the charming gentleman cowboy as High-Spade Frankie Wilson. His comedic lightness is a relief from Lin’s obsessive mission.

High-Spade supplies a much-needed levity throughout the film, with a ton of sharp lines, like when he spells his name and says, “With a hyphen — that’s what I sit on when I get tired.”

Or when he and Lin are traversing dangerous territory and he pats his head: “It was such pretty hair. I’ve had it ever since I was a kid. A little thin on top … but I sure would like to keep it.”

Three in the bullseye for Lin McAdam

Refer to the entry on “Cimarron” for a rundown of Anthony Mann.

When the original director, Fritz Lang, dropped out, Jimmy Stewart insisted the film be directed by Anthony Mann, who had yet to make his name. This would mark the first of eight movie collaborations for Stewart and Mann. Together, they made eight films together, seven of which were Westerns.

“Winchester ‘73” is the Western that launched Anthony Mann toward the status of A-list director.

It also made Jimmy Stewart incredibly rich. He was the first actor to receive a share of the profits in exchange for a reduced salary. He also gained creative control over the project. As a result, when the film unexpectedly succeeded, Stewart earned three times as much as he would have.

Oh, I forgot to mention that “Winchester ‘73” is black and white. It doesn’t feel like it, at times. There’s so much action, so much variation of shade and color.

The shadowy film noir world that the actors inhabit perfectly contrasts the personal conflicts and victories of each character.

Part of Mann’s talent lies in his eye for the human stories underneath drama and gunfire. He once said that, “Without a woman, the Western wouldn’t work.” A wonderful counterclaim to the notion that Westerns are somehow hostile to women.

In “Winchester ‘73,” he captures a hell of a woman. Before she played Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and won Oscars for complicated roles, Shelley Winters was a blonde bombshell, a pinup model.

Imagine her telling you, as she tells Duryea’s villainous character, “You’re about the lowest thing I’ve ever seen standing in boots. Why don’t you let this woman outta here! She hasn’t done anything to you. And these kids! You oughta be ashamed to look at them, you two-bit, four-flushing gunslinger.”

In “Winchester ‘73,” Winters plays Lola Manners, a saloon girl eager to escape the frilly life of performance.

Winters expressed bewilderment with the film’s central focus: “Here you’ve got all these men … running around to get their hands on this goddamn rifle instead of going after a beautiful blonde like me. What does that tell you about the values of that picture? If I hadn’t been in it, would anybody have noticed?”

We’ll dive into the rest of Anthony Mann’s noir Westerns, including the “Naked Spur” (1953) and “The Furies” (1950) — although Mann later said that “Winchester ‘73” was his favorite, noting that it “contains all the ingredients of the Western, and that it summarizes them.”

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