Long Take: Winchester ’73 Shows How the West Was Won Still Fascinates Us

Viewed August 9 & 16, 2012

Like some—maybe even many—people of my generation, I didn’t grow up with a fondness for the western. This kind of picture wasn’t widely produced when I was a youngster. Since genres go through cyclical periods of (often frenzied) popularity and then disuse, to put it simply, timing is important, but not everything. Although my father is a fan of the classic westerns of the 1940s and 50s, he never instilled in us kids an enthusiasm for movies set in the Old West, centered on macho disputes over land, women, and personal freedom that are couched as epic battles between good and evil. It’s only been in recent years, after being forced (yes, forced) to watch them and analyze their deeper meanings, that I have come to appreciate the western. And in an effort to clean out my nearly full DVR this summer, I submitted to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) and found a mythologizing film-story set in 1876 about how the titular gun “won the west” and conquered the popular imagination (thus, the film is also a study in American material culture). You’re about to enter Spoiler Territory ahead. Consider this your first and final warning. Then again, the movie’s sixty-two years old. The statute of limitations has been lifted for quite some time now.

Jimmy—sorry, James—Stewart stars as Lin McAdam, a highly skilled rifleman who rolls into Dodge City, Kansas, with best friend and sidekick Frankie “High Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell) on the centennial Fourth of July, a day that the town celebrates by hosting a shooting competition. The prize is one of one thousand priceless, perfectly manufactured Winchester repeating rifles, Model 1873. Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) confiscates McAdam’s and High Spade’s guns as soon as they enter town, since Dodge City is a no-gun zone. This means the only way McAdam can best his arch-nemesis Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who is also in town, is to beat him at this game, which he does with a lot of panache. In one of those now recognizably racist representations of American Indians, McAdam pays little money for a Indian spectator’s tribal necklace so that he may break off one of its medallions and blow a hole through it after Sheriff Earp throws it up in the air. Covetous of McAdam’s (fully operational) trophy, which McAdam declines to have engraved with his name for lack of time (a maneuver that makes for convenient story plotting), Dutch and his men ambush the winner, steal it from him, and ride out of town without collecting their own guns from the sheriff’s brother, Virgil. McAdam and High Spade are hot in pursuit.

Dodge City Sheriff Wyatt Earp, center, presides over a shooting competition between the just Lin McAdam, left, and the outlaw Dutch Henry Brown, right. Earp has no idea what his contest has set off. Image courtesy of http://www.listal.com.

Synopses of Winchester ’73 typically relate that the film tracks the journey of the rifle, as it is passed from one person to the next. Dutch loses it in a card game to the Indian trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) while seeking to refuel and arm his men at a saloon on the border with the Indian territory. Later, Lamont refuses to offer Young Bull (Rock Hudson in one of his earliest screen credits) the Winchester ’73, a rifle like the ones that Lakota Chief Crazy Horse (alongside Sitting Bull) and his men used to defeat Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn just months ago. In a deal gone wrong, Young Bull strips Lamont of the gun and then kills and scalps him off-screen. In this way, both sides want the rifle for protection and conquest, but it’s impossible to read their awed faces when in its presence without acknowledging that they have all bought into the myth that the gun, at least in retrospect, is “The Gun that Won the West.” In each man’s eyes, it’s his own ticket to greatness, infamy, legend. Not only will the Winchester ’73 help him reach all of his goals, it will bestow special god-like powers. (Yes, having a murderous streak running through you will make you believe you’re a god when you have the power to kill people from far away, without having to continually reload your weapon.)

For some of the men, like Steve Miller (Charles Drake), who gets it in the aftermath of an impromptu battle against Young Bull, the gun could potentially transform him from coward to brave hero. Except, it doesn’t. He doesn’t have it for more than a day. A supposed friend, the psychopathic Waco Johnny Dean (a charismatic Dan Duryea) shoots Steve dead in front of his fiancee, the former Dodge City saloon girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), whom Steve previously and temporarily abandoned when Young Bull chased their wagon the day prior, leading them to seek refuge at the camp of inexperienced U.S. cavalrymen led by Sergeant Wilkes (a funny Jay C. Flippen). It should be noted that during this hideout, McAdam and High Spade also happen upon the army’s makeshift outpost and, thankfully, successfully guide everyone in battle. McAdam rides away before Sgt. Wilkes discovers Young Bull’s rifle, and so he gives it to Steve, a golden opportunity for him to later, fatally, prove his manhood. Very fetishistic, indeed. (It’s worth noting, too, that Wilkes couldn’t have known that it’s McAdam’s rifle; he just wanted to thank him for his superb reinforcements. The historical paper trail on the gun’s provenance runs cold when one looks for the owner’s name on the engraving, which therefore suggests that the mythic Winchester ’73 belongs to everyone and no one at the same time. But, of course, as film-viewers, we know it belongs to one man specifically.)

The eponymous repeating rifle that belongs to McAdam, but from the look of it to everyone and no one in particular. Image courtesy of http://www.derekhill.wordpress.com

And that’s just it. Winchester ’73 is about men and their toys. Or so it would seem. From the beginning, we understand that McAdam and High Spade have been hot on Dutch Henry Brown’s trail for a long time for a specific crime he once committed, though we don’t know what it is. That he took off with the priceless rifle McAdam deservedly won is just an excuse to keep pursuing him. So, while I like to think of Winchester ’73 as a film that examines how a single material object shaped the lives of all those who came in contact with it, in the process both deconstructing and perpetuating the legend that the gun played a vital role in settlers’ so-called “civilized” domestication of the Wild West, I can’t help but notice that the gun itself is a MacGuffin. Sure, it’s not an empty plot device a la the eponymous Maltese Falcon in John Huston’s film noir from 1941; the Winchester is loaded with symbolism in cultural, historical, and political terms. However, McAdam doesn’t seem to want or need the gun to feel complete. He just really wants Dutch dead.

Things heat up once all parties reach Tascosa, Texas, where Dutch and his men botch a bank robbery. Waco Johnny Dean, a would-be co-conspirator, has brought with him Lola Manners. For when you take away a man’s life in outlaw country, you take with you his gun and his bride. Anyway, seeking information about Dutch’s whereabouts from Waco Johnny, McAdam has no choice but to kill his uncooperative informant, thereby releasing Lola from her prison of implied sexual slavery in one fell swoop. She’s grazed by a bullet from the gunfire in the street (following Dutch’s ill attempt at robbing), a hooker with a heart of gold because she tried to get a child to safety. McAdam chases after Dutch to the hills outside of town. Director Anthony Mann uses parallel editing to cut between the action in town and on the rocks. In this climatic scene, High Spade illuminates for Lola—and by extension, the audience—the reason for McAdam’s lust for Dutch’s blood: turns out they’re brothers, and Dutch (né Matthew) killed their upstanding father when he refused to offer shelter to his thieving son. For added pathetic emphasis, High Spade says Dutch shot his dad in the back. OK. We get it, he’s one spineless, evil dude, contractually bound to get his narrative comeuppance.

Honestly, the revelation that McAdam and Dutch are brothers is so contrived, a crucial piece of the story’s puzzle lazily tacked on before the super-imposed title card flashes “The End.” Definitely, if we knew of their familial connection early on in the film, which my father is convinced is the case (I swear to you, it’s not), the narrative would lose some of its suspense. But not much of it. In fact, if their backstory were more fleshed out throughout the picture, then the stakes would have been upped exponentially, kind of like how the paternal melodrama of Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) plays out between cattle rancher John Wayne and his adopted, rebellious son Montgomery Clift: will Wayne really make good on his promise to kill Clift in the end for his mutinous betrayal? In the very least, with an improved development of the brothers’ individual motivations in Winchester ’73, we wouldn’t have to rely on first impressions alone to size up Dutch’s character before he even makes a break for McAdam’s prize. Come to think of it, how did they manage, in that hotel room scuffle, not to hint at their relation? No warring brothers could plausibly accomplish that. Then again, if Mann and screenwriters Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase had taken the route I’m retroactively proposing, McAdam’s quest for the rifle would be even more transparently about beating his brother at a childish game of war and less about how “The Gun Won the West.”

In this promotional still for the movie, the self-aggrandizing sexual power that the Winchester ’73 gives off is completely unambiguous. That’s Lola in McAdam’s crotch, nursing a war wound. Image courtesy of http://www.hollywoodsgoldenage.com.

But the filmmakers themselves can’t make up their minds about what to do with the gun. (Or maybe I’m just projecting my own intellectual frustrations. That seems more likely.) Because in the end, after inevitably killing his brother, McAdam wins the war and takes back the spoils that are rightfully his. With the ruckus caused by the snatching of his toy now settled, he is also rewarded the love of a woman (who has proven herself good). Sure, she’s a flirt, but she’s also a defiant survivor clearly bedazzled by McAdam’s shooting skills and respectful interaction. He treats her like a lady, not a tramp. (In an earlier scene, before Young Bull’s not-so-surprise ambush, McAdam gifted Lola his six-shooter, and his gentlemanly gesture wasn’t lost on her: she was to shoot herself before letting any Indian take her captive.) So it appears as if there has been some underlying anxiety over McAdam’s masculinity, after all. In other words, regaining the Winchester ’73 does complete his own transformation. Implicitly, but not-so-subtly, he couldn’t settle down with a woman (preferring High Spade’s company to anyone else’s, it has to be said) before he successfully vanquished his brother. And now that he has his rifle prize back, his righteous, unambiguously heterosexual manhood is restored and he can aggressively pursue romance with Lola. That’s just about what you would expect from any and all westerns, but Winchester ’73 more explicitly weds generic trademarks (such as the domestication of redemptive rogue souls) to the complex processes of mythologizing the Wild West in popular American culture. It does this, my friends, by harnessing the emotive and symbolic power of the titular gun.


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