So I had the weird idea that Winchester ’73 could have gone in a different and more intriguing direction, and if it had done so I would have liked it a lot more.
And I’m not talking about the main plot, necessarily. That’s a fairly conventional Western Movie story, with Jimmy Stewart as “Lin McAdam,” a frontiersman on the trail of a fellow named Dutch (Stephen McNally). They run into each other in Dodge City, but can’t settle their score because Dodge City’s sheriff, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), has initiated a “no guns” policy in Dodge, requiring all travelers to surrender their arms into his care upon entering the town. Lin and Dutch, reduced to eyeing each other warily, have little else to do so they both enter a marksmanship contest in town – the grand prize being a new 1873 model Winchester rifle. Both soon take the lead, demonstrating greater and greater feats of shooting, but Lin finally wins – and Dutch ambushes him shortly after, stealing the coveted prize and leaving town, with Lin once again in pursuit.
And here starts the most interesting part of the film, as the gun passes through a series of very different hands in a variety of different ways. It’s added to the pot in a poker match, it’s part of a trade with a Sioux war party, it’s dropped on a battlefield, it’s given to a milquetoast dandy, it’s used in a robbery; in short, it has its own set of adventures, and it’s peripatetic voyage – and the reasons people want this gun in the first place – made for a more interesting story to me than the Saga Of Lin And Dutch. Each of the little vignettes that make up the gun’s travels felt like their own little story, except for Lin and Dutch – even their backstory is only added as an afterthought, with Lin’s sidekick “High Spade Frankie” telling a saloon girl “how do Lin and Dutch know each other” in a very brief scene towards the very end.
So to me, this looks like the filmmakers really wanted just to make a story of a gun – their title card at the beginning gives the history of the Winchester company and touts the fame of the 1873 model in particular – but were forced to throw in a plot about A Person to get the studio on board. Which is understandable. But I felt it was a lesser film as a result, and also feel like they could have chosen a better story to play up.