Winchester ’73 is a film that follows not just a person but a rifle. It starts with our hero Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his pal High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) coming to Dodge City just in time for the 4th of July centennial celebration. After a run in with Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), who is very pleasant after the interference, the pair make way to the saloon. There they encounter the object of their journey, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally). It’s obvious there’s tension there. Earp makes certain that the trouble will not arise during the celebrations by gently warning the men. The scene in the saloon dissolves into the shooting match the next day. The prize is 1 of 1,000, a perfect Winchester 1873. McAdam eventually wins. But whatever rift is between McAdam and Brown causes Brown to beat the tar out of McAdam and steal the rifle before McAdam’s name is engraved on the plate on the buttstock.
The next time the rifle changes hands it goes from Brown to Joe Lamont (John McIntire) then from Lamont to Young Bull (Rock Hudson). We don’t see the rifle again until Young Bull attacks a wagon train going to re resupply a fort on the frontier. After Young Bull is killed one of the young soldiers finds the rifle and turns it over the SGT Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen). The sergeant doesn’t want it to go into general supply and attempts to hand off to McAdam who is leaving the area on his search for Brown. But instead Steve Miller (Charles Drake) gets it. The rifle then goes on to change hands again, Steve is killed for it by Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) and Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) gets herself kidnapped. This rifle is an awful lot of trouble. It switches hands again when Waco meets up with Brown to plan a heist in Tascosa. Brown removes the rifle from Waco’s possession with a threat of death.
One really major iconic convention is the big bad Indian. While the Indians were seen briefly they are the most iconic. Part of the lore of the Western is the conflict between the encroaching “newcomers” or Easterners. Another icon that shows up is our main characters wearing cowboy hats. It may seem like a silly thing but when I think of Westerns, cowboy hats and boots, six guns and the calvary always come to mind. We also have a bank robbery, horses and a couple of saloons; all elements that make up a Western. We also have another story element that isn’t necessarily typical, brother against brother.
Winchester ’73 fits into the Classical stage. It has accepted elements: cowboys, Indians, shoot outs, a damsel in distress, horses and an attempted robbery of the Wells Fargo. I can’t really compare other films in the genre because I don’t watch Westerns. However, this film does not fall into the same stage as Dances with Wolves. Besides Shane over 15 years ago, that is the only other Western I’ve watched from beginning to end. Winchester ’73 may have helped along the non-lawman hero that appears in the revisionist stage. There is no indication that Lin McAdam is any kind of law yet, he engages in a manhunt to track down his father’s murderer.
In Winchester ’73 the concept of wilderness vs. civilization is seen by introducing the character of Lola Manners. She represents the easternization of the West. We never see her dressed in Western-styled clothing. She removes layers of her dress but nothing more. Even McAdam is prone to treating her with gentleness when he gives her his saddle to lay her head on telling her it’s more comfortable than the ground. Lola also looks to McAdam as the strong protective type and has a connection to him even though she is with Steve. We also see the concept in the attack of the Indians on the Calvary wagon train out to resupply a frontier fort. We see the Indians with “repeaters” that were stolen from Joe Lamont. The cowboy and Indian scenario is typical to most early Westerns. The theme of wilderness vs. civilization is not unique to the genre but the genre certainly gave it a huge boost. With the advent of science fiction wilderness vs. civilization took on a whole new meaning. Thank you Westerns!