By 1950 television as the prevailing mass medium had come to stay in American cultural and social life, as well as colonising the Yankee imagination and the movie business overall. Even the once indestructible and all-powerful major studios (MGM, Universal, et al) were struggling to find and hold a new audience. It was the twilight of the Western and the first hints of the slow death of one of the great and emblematic movie genres.

Winchester '73

Though some feature film directors (Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, and of course John Ford) created a kind of elegiac poetry out of tales of the old Western values slowly yielding to modernity and technologies like the car, a few films remain from that 1950s which capture the innocence and optimism of movies going right back to the very first of the “wild bunch”: Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903).

For James Stewart, recently a colonel in the USAF (he was promoted to major general on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan), it was also time for a paradigm shift. Hollywood’s favourite Everyman – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) – was ready to play more complex, less soft-edged roles. But where to go and what roles to play in an industry that survived on typecasting? After all, Stewart had made his mark in screwball comedies, suspense thrillers, Westerns and family comedies. From now on he personally selected his directors when he could and worked with most of them more than once. These included outstanding, often visionary works by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, especially Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), and John Ford’s hymn to the Old West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Probably Stewart’s own character and personality tended to straitjacket him too. He was almost universally described by his collaborators as a kind, soft-spoken man and a true movie professional. So, naturally, Stewart was almost always typecast in roles that used this loveable persona.

But the Jimmy Stewart (Lin McAdam) of Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73 (1950) is something else: a man driven by an inner engine that will not let him rest as he hunts down the eponymous gun – that perfect, “priceless… one in a thousand” repeater rifle he’d won in a fair contest while drifting through a new township. The little town itself was a marvel of Horace Greeley’s new West: all boosterism and fresh carpentry.

Winchester '73

Gradually, peeling back the layers of McAdam’s life, we are allowed to see the bottomless loss that lies in the depths of his plainsman’s deep-set eyes; a betrayal many years ago that will not let him rest. Like so many of the truly great Westerns (like the unparalleled The Searchers [John Ford, 1956]), this tale is of a heroic quest or a complex pass-the-parcel game where to merely possess the gun is a short-lived matter – here Death makes the rules. After that first theft, the symbolic rifle seems to be always at least two steps away from Lin’s outstretched hands.

So, this is the new postwar Jimmy Stewart: Jimmy after Capra. In Winchester 73 he will aim and shoot to kill rather than talk things through in the lounge rooms of Middle America, but he is still constrained by ethics and a personal morality that was at the (dying) core of the Western Myth. You may kill but only for a greater cause. By the time The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) comes along, it’s just the killing that counts.

High-Spade Frankie Wilson: Did you ever wonder what he’d think about you hunting down Dutch Henry?
Lin McAdam: He’d understand. He taught me to hunt.
Wilson: Not men. Hunting for food, that’s alright. Hunting a man to kill him? You’re beginning to like it.
McAdam: That’s where you’re wrong. I don’t like it. Some things a man has to do, so he does ’em.

McAdam’s tasks are then clearly Herculean, each obstacle tougher than the last: a competition, an Indian raid (with a startlingly young Rock Hudson as an Indian warrior) and, finally, the showdown with that stone killer mentioned above, Stephen McNally as Dutch Henry Brown, a man who shares a long buried history with Lin that will not be solved until the final credits roll: unless you get there first with an eye on the Old Testament as well as on Greek Tragedy.

In Winchester 73, Mann is a director of visual extremes and heroic compositions and framing: riders, whether alone or in groups, Indians or cowboys, ride along the crests of the endless dry hills. The plains are flat and the trees few – for these are the real Badlands. The little townships all seem freshly thrown up, and you can almost smell the turpentine and sawdust. The rich tonal palette of black-and-white film (so soon to largely vanish), and classic compositions by that early master William H. Daniels, make the film never less than impressive to watch.

Winchester '73

The classic frontier scenes and the lonely bars are always set way out in the boondocks, ideal for planning a heist or selling a few cases of stolen guns to the highest bidder. It’s the height of the Indian Wars, there’s talk of Custer’s Last Stand, but a good salesman of guns and ammunition, it seems, will sell to anybody!

Stewart and Mann had cemented a powerful partnership. Winchester 73 became a massive box office hit upon its release and set the pattern for their future collaborations. Their finest film work together, Bend of the River (1952), would not be long delayed (1).

Dutch Henry: How much will you take for it?
Lin McAdam: It’s not for sale.
Henry: That’s too bad. That’s too much gun for a man to have just for… shootin’ rabbits.
McAdam: Or for shootin’ men in the back.

Endnotes

  1. The following publications were consulted in the preparation of this article: Jeanine Basinger, Anthony Mann, Twayne, Boston, 1979; Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah – Studies of Authorship Within the Western, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1970, pp. 7-87; Douglas Pye, “The Collapse of Fantasy: Masculinity in the Westerns of Anthony Mann”, The Big Book of Westerns, ed. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, Continuum, New York, 1996, pp. 167-73; Robin Wood, “Man(n) of the West(ern)”, CineAction no. 46, June 1998, pp. 26-33.

Winchester ’73 (1950 USA 92mins)

Prod Co: Universal Pictures Prod: Aaron Rosenberg Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: Borden Chase, Robert L. Richards Phot: William H. Daniels Ed: Edward Curtiss Prod Des: Bernard Herzbrun, Nathan Juran Mus: Walter Scharf

Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Stephen McNally, Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake

About The Author

Jonathan Dawson recently retired as Associate Professor in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University (Queensland) and is now Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He has written and directed scores of films, television series and documentaries. He is also a major contributor to Ian Aitken’s The Encyclopaedia of Documentary Film, including the essay on Australian documentary cinema.
Sadly, in the intervening years since writing this piece, the author has passed away.