I saw this first at the Palace Theater on the town square in Granbury, Texas. It came out in 1950 from Universal International and stars James Stewart as Lin McAdam, a cowpoke on the prowl. It’s Winchester 73, and it’s about the rifle. Images are screen shots from Turner Classic Movies. Details are from Wikipedia.
I’m not going to recap the plot. It’s pretty much straight-line with no twists and quirks. One man is hunting another to kill him. In the middle comes the story of a Winchester 73 rifle that changes hands multiple times, each time with somebody’s dying. The opening shot shows the piece in question.
Please note the date. It’s significant. Just days prior George Armstrong Custer and his entire company of soldiers were wiped out by Sioux Indians at The Battle of Little Bighorn. Repeating rifles, such as the one pictured, figured prominently.
For some reason not explained in the movie, there is to be a shoot-off for the rifle in the store window. Who organized it and how the competition is managed is not brought out in the plot. However, two pokes, McAdam and his sidekick ‘High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) ride into Dodge City, Kansas. The first thing they notice is Town Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) giving saloon girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) the heave-ho. She needs to leave town before respectable folk arrive for the celebraton. McAdam intercedes briefly and then sees her on her way.
McAdam enters the shooting competition, likewise Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), the hombre McAdam and High-Spade are pursuing. The two top guns go head to head for the prize rifle, each shooting perfect scores, until McAdam clinches it with a miracle shot. He takes the prize, but not for long. Dutch and his outlaw partner waylay McAdam, rough him up, and take the rifle. The pursuit for the rifle begins.
Shady gun dealer Joe Lamont (John McIntire) wins it from Dutch in a poker game. Then Lamont loses it to the chief of a plains tribe he is negotiating a sale with. That’s Rock Hudson as Young Bull, about to take the rifle and Lamont’s scalp.
Young Bull doesn’t keep the Winchester for long. Shortly his freshly-armed band takes on an Army calvary troop, where McAdam, High-Spade, and Lola have taken shelter. That’s Tony Curtis as Trooper Doan, contemplating the upcoming Indian attack.
When Young Bull gets killed in the exchange of fire, the Winchester gets picked up from the battlefield by the soldiers, and it passes to Lola’s boyfriend, Steve Miller (Charles Drake). Later comes Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) to kill Steve Miller and to take the weapon.
Waco Johnnie meets up with Dutch for a planned armed robbery, and Dutch “persuades” Johnnie to hand over the object of his affections.
McAdam foils the robbery, thanks to help from Lola, who takes a bullet in the arm in the process. McAdam hunts Dutch (who is actually McAdam’s brother) down out in the boondocks and finishes him off in a stereotypical western shootout, with Dutch falling over the cliff in heroic fashion. McAdam heads back to town with the Winchester and hooks up with sweet Lola. And it’s all over.
A lot confuses me about this movie:
- There’s a shoot-off for the prize. Entrants are handed matched rifles to use. Really? You’re going into competition with a rifle you’ve never fired before? And McAdam and Dutch shoot perfect scores with tight groupings? It’s amazing to me.
- The soldiers bed down for the night, anticipating the Indians will attack in the morning. That’s because Indians are superstitious and won’t fight at night. Bull shit. If Indians didn’t fight at night, it was for the same reasons the soldiers didn’t fight at night. It’s hard to see at night.
- McAdam explains to the Army sergeant that the Indians will attack in two waves, depending on the soldiers being in the process of reloading their single-shot rifles after the first volley. That also begs credulity. During the time of the plains Indian wars the tribes were notorious for being disorganized fighters. Crazy Horse had a devil of a time keeping his warriors from taking the fight to the enemy individually.
- The armed robbery is scheduled for Tascosa, Texas. Please look at a map. That’s just west of present day Amarillo. The movie shows the landscape decked with saguaro cacti. It’s a species that does not exist outside the Sonora Desert, two states to the west.
- Two sharpshooters have it out in precipitous terrain. Either can hit a dollar coin at 100 yards. Yet Dutch exposes himself to McAdam, presenting a perfect target. To be generous, he may have at this point in the plot become suicidal.
This was six years before Rock Hudson went the big time with Elizabeth Taylor in Giant. The studio couldn’t find anybody, say Jay Silverheels, to play chief Young Bull? Hudson did play it right, however. No pidgin English for a tribal chief. This was a year after I first saw Tony Curtis in City Across the River and three years before he starred in Houdini. Nine years later Shelly Winters won an Academy Award for The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s impossible for me to watch one of the post-war films featuring James Stewart without realizing I was seeing a man who had stared death in the face on a daily basis as a bomber pilot over Europe.