Will Geer, James Stewart and Stephen McNally in Winchester '73

Pass the Winchester on the Right Hand Side

There has been a lot written about "Winchester '73" over the years, the dark tale, the elements of noir, that it breathed life into a genre which was crying out for more than singing cowboys. But the most important thing that should be said about "Winchester '73" is that it's brilliant, using a rifle passing from hand to hand to tell various stories which interweave, crash together with impressive action and feature what is undoubtedly a powerful cast for it's time. I would even go as far to say that even if westerns bore you the way director Anthony Mann tells the story, these various episodes will capture your attention.

Having shown up in Dodge City for the chance to win a prized Winchester rifle in a shooting competition, Lin McAdam (James Stewart - Rope) finds himself coming up against his enemy Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally - Keeper of the Flame). Despite winning the rifle McAdam ends up losing it when Dutch and his buddies jump him escaping just as sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) shows up. With McAdam in pursuit of Brown the prized rifle ends up changing hands as a gambler, an apache and a cavalry sergeant own it till finally they McAdam, Brown and the Winchester rifle meet in a mountain showdown.

James Stewart and Shelley Winters in Winchester '73

One of the things which make "Winchester '73" so good is that it is a movie of episodes caused by the passing from one hand to another of the prized Winchester rifle. But at the same time there is this constant theme of Lin McAdam tracking down Dutch Henry Brown partly because Brown stole McAdam's rifle but also because there is some history, some mystery between them. This clever merging means that whilst we get these episodes which generally culminate with some action they are linked together as McAdam usually shows up.

Now the overall story of McAdam tracking down Dutch Henry Brown is pretty good and from the opening scenes with them both in Dodge City for the July 4th shooting competition sets up both tension and mystery. We quickly learn that there is history, that they were both taught to shoot by the same person and something in their past has made them rivals. It sets up a brilliant amount of mystery which keeps on going throughout until finally it's answered when inevitably they come face to face one last time.

But then this is split up by the episodes so that "Winchester '73" becomes more than just mystery and revenge it becomes mini battles where we watch a dancing girl named Lola and her partner get trapped with some cavalry and McAdam's as apache's plan to attack. That episode in particular is brilliant and culminates with one of the movies best action sequences which wow you with its speed and ferocity.

What also helps is that "Winchester '73" beds itself into history. In the opening scenes as McAdam shows up in Dodge City he is met by the sheriff who happens to be Wyatt Earp and then later on there are mentions of General Custer and Buffalo Bill. It's these almost innocuous elements which help to make "Winchester '73" more than just another western acting as clever embellishments.

What this means is we have a very good storyline one which cleverly interweaves a tale of revenge with various episodes which link together through the rifle passing from one hand to another. But that alone is not the reason why "Winchester '73" is so good; it also has a hugely impressive cast including James Stewart in his first western collaboration with director Anthony Mann. Whilst many rate the likes of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" as Stewart's best performances his performance in "Winchester '73" is right up there with them. He manages to create such a multi layered character a man with a good heart yet someone who is filled with rage over something which happened in the past between him and Dutch Henry Brown. The two most important things are that Stewart is convincing as this expert shooter but he also finds the right blend of good and bad to make us like him.

Stewart is by no means alone and "Winchester '73" boasts a cast of stars and recognizable faces which even by today's standards is impressive. Millard Mitchell is spot on as McAdam's travelling sidekick High Spade Frankie Wilson, Will Geer gives us an almost comical Wyatt Earp, Stephen McNally is evil as Dutch Henry Brown as is Dan Duryea as Waco Johnnie Dean. And then there is Shelley Winters who comes across as quite sweet as Lola Manners. But for the sharp eyed will notice that even in the background there are more recognizable faces such as Rock Hudson playing Young Bull and Tony Curtis gets a few scenes as a young cavalry man. Plus on top of this there are those regular western faces such as John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, James Millican and Steve Brodie.

What this all boils down to is that "Winchester '73" is a clever and brilliant western. The way we have the main story of McAdam tracking down Dutch Henry Brown interweaved with action packed episodes makes it easy to watch and follow. Plus with one of James Stewart's best performances and a cast of stars it is fascinating to watch even if you are not a fan of westerns.