Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Winchester '73 (1950)

The model 1873 Winchester rifle was one of the most successful rifles of its day, and became colloquially known as "The Gun That Won The West".  By white folk, anyway.  I imagine that Native American terms for it were less flattering.

Over 700,000 of the rifles were manufactured.  In a cunning marketing decision, the Winchester company separated their products into grades, based on the results of test-firing.  Those barrels with the tightest "grouping" (and thus the highest quality work) were given special badges and sold at a highly marked-up price.

This film revolves around one such "One in One Thousand" rifle, though it elevates the status of the brand even further: we are told that such perfect weapons are never sold, because they could have no price.  They can only be gifted to specific individuals ("President Grant has one") or won in contests of skill.  In this case, a target shooting competition at the "Dodge City Centennial Celebrations".

The man who wins this competition is Lin McAdam, who triumphs over 'Dutch' Brown in what is obviously a heated and personal grudge match between the two.  However Brown immediately steals the rifle and the hunt is on.  Or actually, the hunt continues - it emerges that McAdam was pursuing Brown even before this encounter.

Now McAdams has two reasons to chase Brown - their existing feud and the rifle - but ironically Brown loses the weapon a few days later.  The movie follows both McAdams and the rifle from this point on, with the rifle actually getting the larger share of the screen time.  A sensible decision, since "guy rides across the countryside" is not a terribly compelling concept for a film.

Winchester '73 is an old-fashioned western.  The Native American characters are there purely as adversaries (and played by white actors, of course - Rock Hudson is their chief).  The saloon gal has a heart of gold.  The bad guy even wears a black hat.  It's raised above mediocrity by its strong cast and by the playfulness the script displays in dialogue and the rifle's journey before it finally returns to McAdam.

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