By Rosalie Tirella
Good news for this Western aficionado: James Stewart made some terrific Westerns with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s! I recently learned this celluloid factoid. So right now I’m watching Mann’s “Winchester ’73.” It’s a fast paced, entertaining flick starring Stewart and Shelley Winters. But there’s a passel of supporting actors who are also excellent, each one adding another brush stroke to this painting of American greed, violence, true love and our incessant need to keep moving.
So much is going on here. Mostly, we’re enthralled by Stewart, playing “Lin,” an on-fire kinda guy maniacally searching for the thug who beat him up and stole his beautiful, brandy new Winchester ’73 rifle he won at a Fourth of July marksmanship contest in Dodge. Hell bent on finding the thief – and killing him – Stewart and his sidekick pal scour the plains looking for the thief – without catching their breath, without stopping for a good meal even. The rifle has a life all its own: it’s lost by the thief, stolen by a sly gunslinger. Then an Indian (a very young Rock Hudson wearing a big, ridiculous fake beak nose) kills for the Winchester ’73 after the gunslinger tries to sell him crap weapons for his tribe. Then Rock loses the rifle to the U.S. Calvary. Then it’s gifted to the cowardly boyfriend of Shelley Winters (Lola). Lola’s beau is a real loser. Chased by Indians while driving their wagon to their forever home, he stops short, jumps on the horse tied to the back of their cart and gallops off, leaving poor Lola all alone in that wagon. She yells after him. He gallops on. The Indians move in … in clouds of dust and war paint. I so love Winters in this role! She’s the feisty brassy blonde dance hall girl who keeps on insisting she just plays the piano! So down to earth! There’s such real warmth in her smile, and it’s sweet when she kisses the older Calvary officer on his wizened cheek after he saves her from the Indians. He was hoping for a little more …
It must be noted here: Mann’s depiction of Native Americans is deplorable. In his film they are portrayed as stupid, money-grubbing losers with weird, self-defeating religious beliefs. From the ridiculously made up Rock Hudson as a war chief to the lost soul Indian townie at the centennial celebration in Dodge, you feel ashamed – and angry with Mann and Stewart who was supposed to be a very nice guy, bravely serving as a fighter pilot in World War II. My late pal Tony Hmura was a bomber in Stewart’s US Air Force squadron. Stewart was beloved by his men, including Tony, and was a true American hero!
But I digress. Ostensibly, it’s the fancy, repeater rifle, the rife that “Won the West” – a firearm model owned by Buffalo Bill and President Ulysses Grant alike – that sets Lin on his wild odyssey. But it’s more than that, as we learn bit by bit during the film what’s really driving this guy. The real reason is fully and finally revealed at the very end of the movie.
I read that Mann and Stewart ushered in a new kind of Western when they made Winchester ’73 – a cowboy movie with more emotionally complex cowboys. After Mann and Stewart, the Western hero wasn’t always wearing the white hat. Sometimes he was both good and bad. Sometimes his motives were fuzzy – or just plain wrongheaded. Sometimes he was vindictive for the maddest reasons. Sometimes he killed without giving killing a second thought. Still, he was the film’s “hero.” In 1950 it was Mann and Stewart. A few years later it would be John Ford and John Wayne making my favorite movie of all time, THE SEARCHERS, an American masterpiece. You can’t find a darker, more tormented, more emotionally isolated, more messed up “hero” than Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. But you’re with him every step of the convoluted way, thru snowstorms, bison massacres, horrific trips to Indian reservations. A warped American Western hero, Ethan Edwards, but you can’t let go.
Back to the film I’m watching: Reunited with her cowardly boyfriend but now in love with James Stewart, who plays her love interest with a sexy grace, Shelley Winters finds herself holed up in her future home with a bunch of rough necks whose leader draws her boyfriend into a fight and easily shoots him dead. Some fake blood pours out of the gun shot wound, another first for Westerns – the bloodshed, the real consequences, after the trigger is pulled. Now Shelley’s his girlfriend, he decides. She basically calls him weird to his face: “You’re a strange person!” This is before the authorities set the place on fire. Wyatt Earp is the marshall, and he’s wise and charming, even while setting the house ablaze.
All the while the Winchester ’73 passes from thug to killer back to thug then to killer, a mute witness to man’s insanity. When the crazy boyfriend meets up with his compadres in a cabin in the sage brush, he’s got Shelley Winters (Lola) and the prized Winchester ’73 with him. But the original thief is there and claims it’s his rifle. He couldn’t care less about the pretty girl! Crazy guy gives him the Winchester ’73 telling Lola he’ll kill him for the rifle later on … eventually.
Stewart shows real menace in this movie. You wouldn’t think so because he’s got that nice face and wonderful drawl … When he enters a room, Lola says: “Well, hello, nice people.” Yes, Stewart is the epitome of niceness. But he’s crazed and vicious at times in this film. And believable in his neuroticism.
The final shootout is in the middle of a bank heist with Shelley Winters jumping in to protect two little kids. She gets shot. Holding the wounded saloon gal, Lin’s pal tells her Lin is chasing “Dutch Henry” – the original thug who stole the rifle from Lin – because he’s his half-brother and he killed their father. Shot him in the back.
The final scenes are kind of Biblical… brother shooting at brother, talking back and forth to each other as their bullets ricochet off the boulders in the middle of the desert at dusk. Dutch’s real name is Matthew. Lin scolds his brother Matthew for wasting bullets. Their father always taught them to never waste firepower. “Save your lead” Lin tells Matthew.
I’ll give the ending away: Stewart gets the girl – and his Winchester ’73. But we all know Shelley Winters is a way better prize than some dopey ol’ rifle!