A contest of marksmanship is being held for the 4th of July, 1876 in the small, old West town of Dodge City, Kansas. The town is ruled by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), who does not allow firearms to be carried in Dodge City despite everyone’s apparent infatuation with the weapons.
Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) and Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) have come to Dodge City in pursuit of “Dutch Henry” (Stephen McNally), an outlaw who they soon run into at the local saloon. Lin and Frankie can’t take Dutch Henry down just yet, though, since they’re in the presence of Sheriff Earp.
Lin and Frankie decide to compete against Dutch Henry and other local sharp-shooters in the July 4th contest, for which the prize is a fancy, coveted Winchester ’73 rifle. Lin and Dutch Henry duke it out for the top spot, with Lin eventually taking home the prize.
Lin doesn’t get to hold on to his beloved rifle for long, though. A few days after the competition, Dutch Henry jumps him and steals the rifle. Lin must then continue to track Dutch Henry through the West, not only to take him down but also to get the prized gun back.
Anthony Mann directs Winchester ’73, a 1950 Western written by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase.
One big thing put a damper on this film for me, which I’ve mentioned as a pet peeve in previous posts about Westerns: stereotyping of Native Americans. It starts early, with Jimmy Stewart talking to an “Indian man” (very heavily made up) in fragmented English, as though the man wouldn’t be able to understand him otherwise. Further jabs are thrown through the film’s dialogue (“I don’t want to sound like an Indian trader,” etc.), and a large chunk of the story has the usual “cowboys/soliders vs. Indians” action.
And as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, they’ve got Rock Hudson of all people playing a gun-obsessed man named Young Bull. ROCK HUDSON. Shirtless Rock Hudson, with paint on his face, donning pigtails and feathers in his hair. I understand that hiring white men to play non-white characters was the norm in Hollywood (and still is, to some extent. I’m looking at you, Johnny Depp), but that doesn’t make it right or excusable.
I tried my best to put this pet peeve aside and judge the film by other criteria, and was somewhat successful (though only with great effort!). It is a fun watch and has many elements that work together well: the performances, the pace, the cinematography, the story’s twists, the fantastic score. Most of all, I enjoyed the psychological edge to the story. Stewart’s character is not your typical Western hero.
If not for the peeve-triggering this would have been a very high-scoring film, because aside from those cringe-worthy scenes it is certainly an enjoyable and entertaining film, with a talented cast and a whole lot of visual appeal.
Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre? SOMEWHAT, BUT NOT REALLY – I can’t get past the pet peeves, but otherwise the film was gripping and fast-paced. I wouldn’t say it did too much for my appreciation of westerns since it makes use of one of the tropes I’ve always disliked about the genre, but it isn’t a bad watch.
The score: 2.5/5