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Review: Winchester ‘73

Winchester ‘73 features an intriguing narrative gimmick. While the overarching plot is a bog-standard revenge thriller—with Jimmy Stewart’s disillusioned sharpshooter relentlessly, obsessively pursuing his father’s killer across the Wild West—the film deemphasizes that particular thread, instead following the journey of the eponymous rifle as it passes from one supporting character to the next (the gun's ill-fated owners include: a shifty traveling merchant, a cowardly rancher, a Sioux war chief—played, naturally, by a Caucasian actor—and multiple bloodthirsty bandits). This broadens the otherwise conventional story considerably, transforming it into a sprawling odyssey that guides the viewer through the various strata of frontier society.

Despite having aged poorly in certain regards—particularly in its depiction of Native Americans as villainous (albeit not entirely unsympathetic) savages, its implicit glorification of Confederate values (both our protagonist and his plucky sidekick fought for the South), and its use of the egregiously problematic “save the last bullets for the womenfolk” trope—the movie's novel structure makes it an essential genre classic. Of equal interest is Stewart’s charismatic performance, which represents a transition from the wholesome, “golly gee” Boy Scout roles with which he had previously been associated to the morally ambiguous, psychologically complex antiheroes that would later define his career. If you can accept Winchester '73 as a relic of a less enlightened era (and honestly, it's positively progressive by 1950s standards, even taking its "cowboys versus Indians" conflict into consideration), it’s a handsomely crafted picture, elevated by lush black-and-white cinematography and suspenseful action scenes.

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