With Winchester ’73 we are in solid western territory. In fact I doubt it gets more archetypical than this. We got a very clear division between the good and the bad guys. There are cowboys and Indians, cavalry and barmaid(s). There is a duel, man against man, bank robbery, saloons with whiskey, real men and wimps and lots and lots of sweat, dust and horse dung. From the top of my head I cannot think of a movie more heavily entrenched in all the western tropes. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it works out just right and this is one of those cases.
James Stewart is not a small factor to that end. Nobody does the honest, but determined, everyman as he does. You are not for a second in doubt that he is the good guy and you just want to root for him. It is always like that and this is no exception. He says all the right things and have all the right opinions and despite that he does not come out as a one-dimensional, boring hero cliché. I guess that was his special skill that won him his fame and adoration over the years. We always can and want to relate to him.
The James Stewart character, Lin McAdam, is on a quest to find the man who murdered his father together with his friend, the even more down to Earth High Spade (Millard Mitchell). The murderer is the disreputable outlaw Dutch Henry Brown, who besides evading Lin is putting together a band to rob a bank in Tascosa (a two-horse town in the middle of nowhere).
Their first encounter is in legendary Dodge City. I guess the screenwriters just could not miss the chance to throw in Dodge City and the equally legendary Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). He is hosting a rifle shooting competition and the two finalists are no other than Lin and Dutch. In this elegant way we get the characters introduced and established that both are exceptional marksmen, the ultimate skill on the frontier. This is also the introduction of a rifle extraordinaire, the eponymous Winchester ’73. It is the grand price of the shooting competition and apparently an item that will give any gun fetishist a solid hard-on.
The rifle changes hands a number of times through the movie as the holder always seems to get himself killed of loose the gun in a fight almost as if this is an item of bad luck. I am not entirely sure what the function of the rifle is except as an object of greed and to introduce a number of characters including a gun runner, and Indian chief (a young Rock Hudson!), the “wimp”, Steve Miller (Charles Drake) and a crazed out bandit named Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea).
Dutch leaves Dodge City with Lin in hot pursuit and so does the barmaid Lola Manners (Shelley Winters). Her travels is the third thread. She soon finds her fiancé, Steve, but events will soon conspire to reveal who are real men and who are not. Steve, the wimp, is not while Lin is as real as it gets. The challenge is an Indian attack and although this may seem, and probably is, extremely cliché it is also an action sequence of very high quality.
All threads meet in Tascosa. Steve has met a disgraceful death, Lola is captured by the monster Waco and Dutch is about to rob a bank when Lin rides into town.
The ensuing shootout and the final duel in the mountains is again action on a high level and another clear example of good versus bad, honour versus dishonor and virtue versus vice. In the process we learn that Dutch and Lin are brothers and so their fight takes a far more personal and bitter edge.
The more I think about it there more I think there is a straight line from Winchester ’73 to the story of Star Wars. It is commonly known that Star Wars is essentially a Western in outer space (yup Chip, I did read your review), but I think it may be this western in particular. Lin and Dutch are almost like the two personalities of a schizophrenic person fighting himself. It is a hopeless match because it is essentially a person fighting himself like Luke and Darth Vader. Lin runs the risk of being overtaken by “the dark side” as his hunt and hatred threatens to transform him into what he is fighting and we are aware that the very same skills and qualities that makes Lin a hero can make a man a monster. Their shooting skill is like “the force” and their rifles are their light sabers.
Of course the comparison is not perfect, there may not be a Han Solo here or two droids and Lin is not exactly going through a transformation, but he is facing a number of challenges on the way and rises above them.