Grade:  B+
Not rated (would be PG)

One of Anthony Mann’s most highly regarded Westerns, Winchester ’73 feels like the perfect film for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. Not only does it take place around the Fourth and show a 100-year celebration in that most fabled of American towns, Dodge City, but it also helps to explain the paradox of America’s gun-crazy culture.

The 1950 film stars James Stewart in one of his best Westerns . . . and that’s saying something, because he’s made quite a few good ones. Winchester ’73 was the first that Stewart made since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it started a string of Westerns he would star in over the next half-decade:  Broken Arrow, Bend of the River, Carbine Williams, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Five of those films were with director Anthony Mann, whom The Guardian called a “master of the genre.”

Winchester ’73 is set just after the battle that was popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. Indians now have repeating rifles, thanks to gunrunners who have no qualms about selling weapons that will be used on settlers and U.S. Cavalry . . . as long as they can make a tidy profit. The Indians that wiped out Custer and his command had better rifles than the cavalry, and America was just learning about Little Bighorn shortly before the nation’s big Centennial celebration. It threw a damper on celebrations in the East, but not in Dodge City, where a genial Wyatt Earp confiscates the guns of newcomers Lin McAdam (Stewart) and Frankie “High-Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell, who would play the big studio boss in Singin’ in the Rain). Lin is tracking down Dutch Henry Brown, with whom he has a personal beef—one that will result in gunplay. As they reluctantly hand over their weapons, the audience is shown the inside of the lawmen’s office that’s completely packed with rifles and handguns and gun belts full of ammunition. Earp explains, it’s impossible to keep law and order in a wild town like Dodge if they allow people to keep their guns. “You’ll get them back when you leave town,” he says.

America’s gun culture is further celebrated with the big event of the Fourth of July:  a Centennial shooting contest for a prized “One of One Thousand” Winchester 1873 rifle. The name refers to an absolutely flawless gun that the factory produces only every thousand guns. So of course every man in town wants to win the rifle, but even the young boys in town are so excited that their jabbering interrupts Marshal Earp (Will Geer, offering a folksy version of the famed lawman). They won’t quiet down and stop arguing over the merits of the various rifles until Earp allows them to touch the rifle.

The “One of One Thousand” doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people. Those who covet the special rifle are willing to do anything to get it, and a string of different owners leads to a trail of bodies in their dust. The drama of the gun changing hands reminds people that yes, guns can(and do) change hands . . . and then what? Lin wins the prize to start things off, but the unique plot is set instantly in motion when the man he’s hunting down (Stephen McNally) jumps him and takes the gun, adding another layer to this revenge plot. Stewart’s performance hits all the right notes. His interplay with his partner and Lola feels natural as can be, and he’s vindictive without being overly bitter and tough without being menacing.

The film, which received a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for Best Written American Western (Broken Arrow won), also features a very young Tony Curtis as a cavalryman and an equally young Rock Hudson as Native American hostile Young Bull before either became famous. And it stars a very young Shelly Winters before she became annoying. Winters doesn’t shriek or complain or scream or whine in this film. As a saloon girl who’s escorted out of town (shades of John Ford’s Stagecoach), she’s remarkably stoic and restrained in her acting. Other very familiar faces that turn up in solid performances include Dan Duryea (as “Waco Johnnie” Dean), Jay C. Flippen (as a cavalry sergeant), and John McIntire (as the unscrupulous gunrunner).

Winchester ‘73 was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2015 because of its significance. It embraces the Western genre’s conventions while also carving out its own niche. Mann strikes just the right balance of realism and style in his Westerns, and adding to both is a plenitude of background activity to add vitality and scenes that allow characters’ psyches to penetrate the usually impenetrable action of a genre picture.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in its treatment of Native Americans. In addition to Hudson’s casting, as with almost all Hollywood movies, any Indians visually depicted are Plains Indians . . . yet this film, with its iconic saguaro cacti and adobe buildings, was shot in the Sonoran desert, Saguaro National Park, and Old Tucson area. In Arizona in 1876, tribes that might have been living there include the Paiute, Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Pimas, Maricopas, Pascua Yaqui, and Papago—not Crow or Cheyenne or Sioux or other Plains Indians. But give Mann credit for finding his own visually iconic West, rather than filming in John Ford country up in Monument Valley.

Winchester ’73 isn’t available in the U.S. yet, but an import sold through Amazon and on eBay still works on U.S. Blu-ray players—and that import delivers a sharp black-and-white picture and crisp sound. If you’re a fan of Westerns and haven’t seen this one yet, I highly recommend it.

Entire family:  No (8 and older)
Run time:  92 min. Black-and-White
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1 (the theatrical ratio—box mistakenly lists 16×9)
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Excalibur Media
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for violence and some smoking, drinking and language)

Language:  1/10—I didn’t catch anything, so it’s nonexistent or negligible

Sex:  1/10—Nothing here except the implication that Winters’ “saloon girl” character might have earned her money by using her sex; at some point she’s given a gun with one bullet, with the implication being that she should kill herself rather than be taken by the Indians

Violence: 3-4/10—Lots of shooting, fistfights, a fire, an Indian attack, but no real blood and nothing too graphic, as this did pass the 1950 film code

Adult situations:  1/10—Some smoking and drinking, and a woman and children are put in peril at several points in the film

Takeaway:  Anthony Mann knew how to make adult Westerns, ones that had complexity and human emotions to accompany the action, and Winchester ’73 might be his best