Film Review: Winchester '73,
Anthony Mann, 1950
'a superior western, with big ideas, odd-ball characters and a comical quirk or two.'
Keith Lofthouse, 2004
'One of the truly great Westerns, directed and acted with flawless skill in the old style.
.....one of the most inspired (films) they (James Stewart and Anthony Mann) ever did.'
Dennis Schwarz, 2006
'The formula is simple, as most Western formulas are, and is openly demonstrated in this facile adventure film.....a whoop-de-do cowboy picture.' Boseley Crowther, N Y Times, 1950
'The film contains nearly every Western film cliché in the book - a laconic sidekick, historical cameos (notably, future blacklist victim Will Geer as Wyatt Earp), barroom face-offs, a bank robbery, Indian attacks, and a fallen woman with a heart of gold played by Shelley Winters.'
Bruce Bennett, 2008
not to mention a bank robbers hideout and a speeded up horse chase at the end! So, is Winchester '73, a superior truly great Western or is it cliché ridden and formulaic?
Winchester '73, Anthony Mann, 1950
Western clichés are indeed in abundance:
Goodies and baddies
The characters of the two main villains are different: the one mincing, extrovert, sneering and lecherous, the other dark and deep. Duryea is as deadly a snake and an unemotional killer who delights in using his prowess with the gun to push others around and doesn't give killing them a second thought. However, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) is a brooding introvert, a troubled soul looking to use his skill with a gun to make easy money, but not an inherently evil bully.
The 'tart with a heart'
Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) is an archetype, forced to leave town by the 'decent folk' she twice shows herself to relate to and care for children. She has to suffer at the hands of numerous men for a number of different reasons, before getting her just reward at the end by securing her one true love. Lola is aware of the 'Save the last bullet for yourself' myth as she knowingly tells Lin (James Stewart) 'I understand about the last one'.
The film has a humourous undertone which suggests it doesn't take itself too seriously. Referring to his sidekicks Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) exclaims 'What a pair!' before turning admiringly towards Shelley Winters. However, the levity tends to increase the impact of the drama, especially when Lin (James Stewart) tackles the two villains in turn in the climax of the movie.
The Western Myth
Dating from the Virginian, the eponymous character of the book by Owen Wister, 1902 the western hero lives by a code of ethics which was even consecrated into a cowboy's Ten Commandments by Gene Autry, the 'Singing Cowboy' in the 1950s. Lin encapsulates the mythic hero's code by saying his daddy told him that: 'if a man has one friend he's rich'. Furthermore, 'Stewart is a relentless searcher with a grudge but he prevails over his brother mainly because he's convinced he has an unequivocal moral right to kill him. This is what Westerns are all about - a cultural myth that many Americans take as a kind of substitute religion.' Glenn Erickson 2003
'Lin's destruction of Waco is consequently a key moment since it both satisfies our moral expectations and disturbs them, our identification with the hero jarred by the naked violence with which he sets about the villain.' Jim Kitses, Horizons West, 2000.
'Historical' characters and places
To lend the film historical 'weight' westerns sometimes used 'real' mythic characters, places and events. Apparently there was a shooting competition in Deadwood on 4 July 1876 which was reputedly won by black cowboy Nat Love and resulted in him getting the nickname Deadwood Dick. This notion was transferred to Dodge City so that Wyatt Earp, Virgil, and Bat Masterson can be worked into the story, and, unsurprisingly, the victor of the movie's contest is not black. An honourable mention is given to George Armstrong Custer, but he does not appear as a character since he was dead by the time the movie was set. There is also reference to the historically unsustainable notion that Custer's foes had superiour weaponry. This shameless interweaving of history and myth has resulted in confusing Americans about the history of their country, leading Orson Welles to state, for example, that best way to learn about the history of the west was to view the films of John Ford, and historians and others to confuse Frederick Jackson Turner's ideas being history rather than myth. More accurately, Turner's formulation, typically given more substance by being presented as a 'thesis', was a pseudo academic justification for Manifest Destiny, and as the New Western Historians have pointed out, was an historical misrepresentation which unwittingly or wittingly celebrated a mythic heroic fight against nature on the frontier.
In the prologue which was often included in westerns of the fifties in an attempt to imply historical authenticity, we are informed that 'an Indian would sell his soul to get one ( a Winchester '73)'. Well an Indian as portrayed by a young Rock Hudson, anyway.
The portrayal of native Americans in Winchester '73 was outrageous, especially when one considers that this film was contemporaneous with Broken Arrow, which despite being patronising at least tried to portray the native Americans sympathetically. Since Stewart starred as Tom Jeffords in Broken Arrow, the stereotypical and disrespectful showing of a 'cigar store Indian' in an attempt at comedy is unacceptable. So are the usual cliché ridden frenzied Indian attacks both on the moving wagon and on the cavalry position. In the latter wave after wave of native Americans are mown down as they stupidly mount a hopeless frontal assault. The former is included predominantly as a vehicle for a 'thrilling' chase, although Lola Manners (Shelley Winters)'s fiancée also shows himself to be 'yeller'.
Other conventional stereotypical nonsense is the use of 'smoke signals' and pulsating (tom tom) music to create dramatic tension, the greedy gunrunner who supplies the Indians despite Custer's defeat ( even Stephen McNally's villain holds him in contempt), the staccato speech in present tense by the Indian Leader (made even more false since he is played by Rock Hudson), the war paint, the inclusion of a scalped victim, and yet another airing for the oft repeated 'historical fact' aka mumbo jumbo that Indians did not fight at night because they believed that the great spirit would not find them if they were to die. Please!!!!
Perhaps you can sense that for me the disrespectful portrayal of native Americans takes the gloss off what is otherwise a well crafted film. I am able to get beyond it to see the excellent performances by a strong cast, the beautiful vistas and the fast moving, if unsubtle plot, the subplots of which reflect a wide range of the mores of the Western. It is these aspects which lead Phillip French to refer to it as a 'classic'. While it is a great pity that the racist tosh was included, at least current generations can see that publicly it was still acceptable in 1950, for this film was an unexpected box office hit. 'Truly great' no, 'cliché ridden' yes. For me the film's main claim to fame is as an excellent example of how far and in what ways the western myth had become embedded in US popular culture by 1950. It would be left to other films to begin to challenge these conceptions.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009