While growing up the Jimmy Stewart Western, Winchester ’73, was a much-loved family treasure. Through the years this movie has been quoted by our clan hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. While it has long remained close to my heart, I long considered I loved it so much because I had grown up loving it along with my kin.
Nay, my friends. Nay, I say. For after much time of having not watched it (A couple of years), I viewed it again this past weekend. It earns all the praise it gets and well deserves to be considered a great Western classic.
Released in 1950, Winchester ’73 was not Stewart’s first foray into the Western genre. He had dabbled in it years before. His most recent prior to Winchester ’73 was Destry Rides Again in 1939. However, this was his first entry in a string of Westerns throughout most of the rest of his career. It was also his first time working with director Anthony Mann, with whom he would go on to do four more Westerns by 1955.
As the title suggests, the movie is partially about a prized gun and how it is stolen from the man who won it legitimately (Stewart) and thereafter passes from one ill-fated possessor to another. However, it is also about a long-standing feud between two childhood friends, both crack shots.
The story commences in Dodge City with a shooting competition to win the legendary gun. The deadly feud began many years before, but both are there for the much-heralded prize. After a phenomenal competition, our hero Lin McAdam wins by successfully shooting through a stamp midair. However, his sworn enemy (“Dutch” Henry Brown) steals the gun from him immediately following the competition. And so, the movie follows two storylines, the line of the Winchester as it is passed from one person to another and another line following McAdam and his friend and partner High Spade as they continue the pursuit of Henry Brown.
To give any further details would be to ruin it for those who have yet to see this gem. The two story-lines run close together, sometimes even crossing paths until they are finally united. Along the way, you will meet a battle-scarred Indian chief, an Indian trader, a beleaguered cavalry unit, and a “crazy yellow” coward. While most of these guys are bad to some degree, the main baddies are two bank robber gang leaders (a very memorable “Waco” Johnny Dean and the aforementioned “Dutch” Henry Brown.)
The movie stars some heavy hitters of the silver screen of yesteryear including Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Milliard Mitchell, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and Jay Flippen. Out of context, the dialogue isn’t that extraordinary, but these actors (and probably their director) made it eternally quotable.
Suggestion: Don’t watch this movie expecting the best Western you have ever seen. If you do, you will be disappointed. While Winchester ’73 is a superb example of the classic Western, it is not in the very top tier of all time.