The Myth Maker
Justin Stewart on Winchester ’73

Firearms—and the violence they both enable and wreak—are as fundamental to American cinema as they are to the history of a land stolen and colonized at gunpoint and a nation whose independence (and later, union) was purchased with oceans of shed blood. When moral superintendents throughout American film history have seen fit to protect delicate sensitivities through censorship, government review, and ratings boards, the representation of violence has been largely given a free pass, while content like blasphemy, interracial romance, and especially nudity and sexuality have drawn the most restrictive ratings and the severest demands for deletion or softening. Sadistic, gory mayhem carried out with phallic firepower has always been deemed preferable to the glimpse of an actual human phallus. For good or ill, action-adventure movie history in this country is written in blood and gunpowder, and so it’s unsurprising that arguably the most American and elemental of genres, the western, would be unthinkable without guns.

Murderous gunplay had marked the literature of the American west from the days of James Fenimore Cooper through Karl May’s German-refracted interpretations to Zane Grey and beyond, with untold numbers of dime novels and pulp magazine stories in between. Though there are American westerns that pre-date it, the love affair between movie audiences and frontier violence was consummated the moment actor Justus D. Barnes emptied that six-shooter directly at-camera in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery—and the film made a mint. Leaping ahead nearly a half century and tens of thousands of shorts and feature films (starring forgotten unknowns but also the likes of Tom Mix, Harry Carey, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne), with miles of celluloid printed with dusty derring-do and be-chapped character actors pretending to be gutshot now either lost or in the can, there appeared a new perspective. In 1950, the great director Anthony Mann—who had come into his own style with a series of mean, cheapjack, ingeniously framed and photographed film noirs in the late 1940s—put out three westerns, immediately becoming one of the genre’s elite purveyors and deconstructors. While The Furies, with its hysterical hothouse oedipal melodrama, and Devil’s Doorway (shot, like Mann’s best noirs, by John Alton and featuring a strikingly sympathetic lead Native American portrayal) are both superb, they remain yoked to the director’s noir phase and are generally and accurately viewed as transitional films in the Mann corpus, while his other 1950 western (he also squeezed in a crime picture—Side Street—that fertile year) would become a canon classic and set the blueprint for the miraculous run of Mann westerns to follow.

Previous Mann films had placed an unusually heavy emphasis on inanimate objects—from his and Alton’s tendency to plunk a massive object (like a metal bedframe in T-Men) in the foreground to the attention lavished on the murderous tractor-pulled furrowing blades in Border Incident (1949)—but Winchester ’73 took object-prioritization to new extremes. James Stewart became attached to the project after super-agent Lew Wasserman realized a tough-guy pivot would provide the perfect career jolt following a string of box office duds, and the famous deal Wasserman finagled for his client (percentage of gross profits instead of a salary) also included choice of director. When Fritz Lang couldn’t do it, a screening of Devil’s Doorway convinced the actor that Mann was the man for the job, and an artistic partnership that would result in eight films (most notably five timeless westerns) was forged. The source book and first treatment (“one as deplorable as the other,” in Mann’s estimation) were both all but scotched when Mann hired Borden Chase (former gangster’s wheelman and Holland Tunnel sandhog, writer of Red River [1948] and later the Mann/Stewart westerns Bend of the River [1952] and The Far Country [1954]) to do a full rewrite. The resultant narrative crafted by Chase with Mann remains a storytelling marvel in the way it centers an object to both push the action along and toggle between characters while sneakily establishing the greater themes of unstable justice-lust and moral rot.

The first tip-off to the film’s object-centrism is the title, shorthand for the Model 1873 lever-action repeating rifle manufactured by the Connecticut-based Winchester Repeating Arms Company, around which the film revolves. Following a trademark Mann opening shot of two silhouetted riders loping on a hilltop, a written prologue bluntly assures viewers that this is a story of the title rifle itself (rather than its characters): “The gun that won the West … To cowman, outlaw, peace officer or soldier, the Winchester ’73 was a treasured possession … An Indian would sell his soul to own one.” A loving closeup of the rifle butt reveals a small silver plate reading “First Prize – Centennial Rifle Shoot – Dodge City, Kansas – July 4, 1876.” This shooting contest is what brings Lin McAdam (Stewart) to Dodge City, though only because he correctly thinks the prize might lure his bank-robber brother (Stephen McNally), who fatally shot their father in the back and is now going by the moniker “Dutch Henry” Brown (this information is not all revealed until the final frames). The bumbling but softly imposing Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) awards the rifle to sharpshooting Lin (the match takes up almost a quarter of the film), but Dutch and his minions jump Lin for the rifle and flee to the two-bit Riker’s Hotel & Bar, where a wizened “Indian trader” (Mann regular John McIntire) wins the Winchester at poker. The gun will then pass to an Indian war leader (Rock Hudson in redface), Shelley Winters’s saloon-girl’s fiancé (Charles Drake), a giggling charismatic-psychopathic freelance criminal (Dan Duryea), Dutch again, and then back to Lin as the latter finally succeeds at his fratricidal revenge on the craggy mountainside, which decidedly fails to cheer him up.

Mann said that “the gun which passed from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere” and indeed the film can feel like a summation of the western to that point, as the movement of the gun takes the action from one “iconic” genre scenario (shooting contest, poker game) to the next (cavalry-and-Indian showdown, bank robbery). The Rosebud-esque, MacGuffin-like, writing-class tidiness of this central symbol might invite accusations of gimmickry, but Chase and Mann never let it lapse into the obvious. The critic Stephen Handzo called the film “a kind of Western La Ronde” (Ophüls’s film was released in France the same year) for the way it elegantly waltzes from scene to scene, each of which would make a satisfying standalone short even though the cohesion of the whole is never in question. As cool as the film makes the Winchester look, the gun also encourages and actuates characters’ most venal and selfish instincts and reveals their covetousness and inherent violence—note the way each character’s eyes subtly bulge and flash with indecent desire when they first spot it.

One could argue that the Native Americans in the film are themselves objectified and treated with no more humanity and are thus afforded less dignity than the star weapon. As Young Bull, Hudson (an Illinois-born Roman Catholic of European lineage) grunts Hollywoodized Sioux like “White men steal our land,” and “They are not the guns of which we spoke … this is gun I want.” And it’s almost laughable with what relative ease several packs of Native warriors are dispatched thanks to Lin’s talents and the accuracy and fluid repeating action of the marvelous Winchester product. For the film’s traipse through western movie tropes, “bloodthirsty, scalp-hungry Indians” is but another box to tick alongside “bar fight” and “poker game.” Ultimately, everything that is part of the composition of the final film (or studio deliverable), from the horses to the set grips to the costumes and James Stewart, is another widget or object.

The sexual implications of this particular weapon shouldn’t go unmentioned, although I think Stewart biographer Marc Eliot somewhat overexcitedly states the case with his talk of the “fiery ejaculations of bullets” from this “astonishingly bold phallic symbol,” an “alluring object” that “substitute[s] for the ‘love interest.’” Winters, alternately so brassy and vulnerable here, already serves as the very human love interest, though post-battle it’s a pistol Lola takes from Lin, and later the much-discussed “last bullet” (the one you are supposed to kill yourself with to avoid capture) which Lin offers to her “if you want it.” “I want it,” she replies without hesitation. The caressing of the gun by Duryea’s sublimely slimy nutcase “Waco” Johnnie Dean is absolutely sexual, but this extrapolation can be disturbing if applied to the moment when Earp lowers the rifle to crotch-level so the town kids can gather around to fondle it.

All of this gets at another notable aspect of the film’s fixation on the title rifle: the shilling hucksterism and corporate colluding. The Winchester company’s product is constantly fetishized and gushed over, especially in the Dodge City introduction; gazing at the glass-encased beauty, the goggle-eyed kids and townsfolk are heard cooing “Boy, oh boy, a Winchester ’73 … I heard it took over a year to make it! … They gave the first to President Grant! … I’ll sure be in good company when I win that one!” Another person squeals, “One of a thousand!”, a reference to the company’s prestige-manufacturing tactic of turning out a smaller-run version of the Model 1873 with a tweaked, supposedly superior barrel and finish―a novelty painstakingly explained by Earp before the contest. In a canny move by Universal marketing wizards that proved lucrative for both the studio and the Winchester company, they placed targeted ads promoting some “contest” in which whoever located the most of these hallowed “One of One Thousand” models around the country would win their own antique rifle. Universal also wasn’t shy about trumpeting the fact that renowned sharpshooter and paid Winchester spokesperson Herb Parsons gave Stewart a private marksmanship masterclass in preparation for the role, even though Parsons did all of the film’s actual tricky shooting himself.

Clever, multi-platform consumer advertising was rampant in postwar, midcentury America, and the studio films from the time are littered with its influence. Winchester ’73’s nightmare mirror image from the same year might be the Frank Tashlin–scripted, Lloyd Bacon–directed The Good Humor Man, in which a salesman of the title ice cream megabrand’s product becomes ensnared in various criminal capers. Closer to the Mann film in quality is Vincente Minnelli’s gorgeous, candy-colored The Long, Long Trailer (1954), 96 minutes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz amusingly hauling a 36-foot Redman New Moon model trailer with their 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible to Yosemite National Park that doubles as an advertisement for all the above (and many other then-state-of-the-art leisure-life products besides).

While Winchester ’73 was far from the first or last film to sell something besides itself (1989’s The Wizard, from the same Universal Pictures, was strictly an excuse to hype new Nintendo product like the Power Glove and Super Mario Bros. 3), it was unique in the combination of how forthright and unapologetic it was about it, and how its achievement as a high work of art renders any qualms about its ethical purity nugatory. Centering the story on a gun coveted by both the audience and everyone onscreen (Lin McAdam, “Dutch Henry,” and every grizzled minor character in between) is shrewd storytelling technique, as it creates instant understanding in the viewer of character motivations, in addition to nimbly propelling the narrative forward. But it also reaches back into The West–set literature and early film westerns to tap into a uniquely American vintage of violence and acquisitiveness, behaviors that have long existed comfortably alongside salesmanship and hucksterism in the “new world” that resulted from all of the country’s original sins.