Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Winchester ’73’: A Shoot ’Em Up Tale of Revenge

October 26, 2020 Updated: October 28, 2020

Passed | 1h 32min | Action, Drama, Western | 12 July 1950 (USA)

A tale of a rifle: Dodge City, Kansas 1876. Lawman Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is holding an annual shooting contest with the prize being one of the newly minted Model 1973 Winchester repeating rifles.

As a large crowd gathers around the contest participants, Earp explains to everyone that this isn’t just any old ’73 Winchester, but one of the rare rifles (nicknamed “One in a Thousand”) that is only produced once in a while. It’s so special that it’s not for sale, but the best of the best marksman partaking in this very special contest will have it all to himself.

As Earp passes it around for the participants to fondle, they practically drool over its perfect lines, balance, and overall lethality.

cowboys talking about guns
Wyatt Earp, C (Will Geer) explains the merits of the repeating Winchester rifle to (L–R) Lin McAdam (James Stewart), High Spade (Millard Mitchell), and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) , in “Winchester ’73.” (Universal Pictures)

Two particular contestants seethe with vitriolic hatred toward one another—barely able to keep their anger in check. One is Lin McAdam (James Stewart) who recently rode into town with his loyal sidekick, High Spade (Millard Mitchell), and the other is a wanted fugitive running under the name of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). The men are brothers who were taught sharpshooting by their father.

While Lin was a good boy growing up, Dutch was anything but; he robbed a bank and a stagecoach in their younger years. When the law caught wind of Dutch’s antics, he tried to hide out with good old pops but was shown the door. Anger consumed Dutch, and he ended up shooting their father in the back. But today, Lin has finally tracked Dutch down to this contest in Kansas City.

The two brothers seem to be equally gifted as the shooting contest progresses, but eventually, Lin gets the better of Dutch. With his Winchester prize in hand, Lin rushes off to his hotel room since he believes that his smoldering brother has revenge in mind for being one-upped.

But Lin’s briefly distracted by newfound fans of his sharpshooting skills. By the time he does make it back to his room, his murderous brother is waiting in ambush.

Earp and Spade catch wind of the two brothers’ struggle and manage to run Dutch and his two henchmen out of town, but they notice that Dutch has stolen the Winchester. After Lin recovers from being knocked out, Spade gently urges him to let things go. But Lin will not be dissuaded. They ride off after Dutch.

Dutch and his men travel to Riker’s bar, a small watering hole out in the countryside. There, they meet a sleazy Indian trader named Joe Lamont (John McIntire). Lamont, an insidiously clever man, manages to hustle Dutch out of the prized rifle, as well as just about all of his money.

Lamont manages to get away from the bar, but Dutch, never one to miss an opportunity for some good bushwhacking, stealthily creeps up on Lamont and shoots him in the back. When he and his men approach Lamont’s slumped over body, they see that Lamont has already been killed and scalped by a local tribe of Indians. Young Bull (Rock Hudson), the Indians’ leader, is now in possession of the much-sought-after rifle.

In a separate storyline, scrappy dancehall girl Lola Manners (Shelly Winters) is trying to start a new life with her weak-willed beau, Steve Miller (Charles Drake). On the way to Steve’s home, they almost get run down by Young Bull and some of his men, and barely manage to make it to an Army Cavalry detachment led by Sergeant Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen). Lin and Spade are likewise chased into the camp. Lola had met Lin briefly in Dodge City and remembers him as a kind man.

Shelly Winters and James Stewart
Shelly Winters and James Stewart. (Universal Pictures)

After the group repels a major Indian assault, Sergeant Wilkes recovers the Winchester from Young Bull’s body. Since Lin helped to fight off the Indians with such gusto, Wilkes calls after him as he rides off so that he can give it to him. But Lin and Spade are too distant to hear the crusty Sergeant’s shouts. Since the Sergeant took a liking to Lola and Steve, he gives the rifle to Steve.

cowboys and indians
“Winchester ’73” has a classic scene of the the U.S. Calvary fighting Native Americans.  (Universal Pictures)

Lola and Steve manage to make it to his home but are surprised when psychopathic outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) shows up. He humiliates Steve, kills him, and takes the Winchester and Lola as his.

Eventually, Lola learns of a bank robbery plot involving a cadre of criminals, including both Dutch and Waco Johnny. Dutch recognizes the Winchester in Waco Johnny’s possession and manages to wrest it from him. Things culminate in the dusty town of Tascosa, where the bank robbery is to take place.

Will Lin and Spade be able to catch up to Dutch in time to thwart his dastardly plan and get the rifle back that he earned?

As a film, “Winchester ’73” is a pretty straight-ahead revenge tale but stands out due to excellent acting performances by Winters, who plays a tough yet tender woman with shifting amorous targets, and Duryea, who sinks into his role of a scheming, unhinged outlaw. While Stewart is good as an anti-hero, McNally crackles on the screen as his ultra-bad boy sibling. His expressions were at times both menacing and calculating in equal measure.

In all, “Winchester ’73” is a very fun watch.

‘Winchester ‘73’
Director: Anthony Mann
Starring: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 1950 (USA)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane.