June 03, 2008

Indians in Winchester '73

This 1950 movie is supposedly the first Western to offer a more complex psychological story than good vs. evil. You couldn't tell that from its portrayal of Indians.

The plot:

Cowboy Wins, Loses, Recovers Rifle in 'Winchester .73,' New Film at the ParamountThe formula is simple, as most Western formulas are, and is openly demonstrated in this facile adventure film. A raw and rangy frontiersman, whom Jimmy Stewart plays, falls in love, with a new Winchester rifle, which is the wonder and envy of the plains. In a Dodge City marksmanship contest, he wins the beauteous shooting iron and is about to start housekeeping with it when it is stolen by his mortal enemy. In short—to continue the formula—cowboy loses gun.

And then begins the pursual. After the rapscallion thief races the mortified cowboy, determined to recapture his gun. But Fate takes a hand in the proceedings. The thief relinquishes the gun to a venomous Indian trader who loses it to an Indian chief. The chief is killed in a skirmish with a beleaguered cavalry band (with which the hero is temporarily allied) and the gun again changes hands. This time a cowardly fellow gets it, only to be slain by a reckless highwayman, who captures the gun and then surrenders it back to the original thief. And finally the thief is cornered by the hero on a mountain precipice. There is a blazing rifle duel between them and—well, that ends it. Cowboy gets gun.
The Indian aspect:

"One of the truly great Westerns, directed and acted with flawless skill in the old style."When Dutch comes to Riker's bar in the desert, he gets hustled into a card game by slimy Indian trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) and is forced to sell the rifle to buy guns to continue on to Tascosa where he's to join up with dangerous gunman Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) to rob the bank. Lamont doesn't fare too well when selling guns to Young Bull (Rock Hudson), as the chief takes the priceless rifle and goes on the warpath. Dancehall gal Lola (Shelly Winters) and her cowardly boyfriend Steve Miller (Charles Drake), who left her in the middle of an Indian attack only to return at the last moment, flee from the attacking Indians to take shelter with an encircled cavalry platoon led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen), who are waiting for reinforcements from the nearby fort while stranded on the trail. They are soon joined by Lin and High-Spade, who are pursuing Dutch Henry when they spot the Indians. After repelling the frenzied Indian attack and killing the chief, a trooper (Tony Curtis) finds the priceless Winchester and the sergeant gives it to Steve because Lin has already left.The psychological depths:

Superb opening salvo from one of the greatest director/star partnerships of all time.The traditional Western depends on a hero who exemplifies rugged wholesomeness, whatever misfortunes he may have had in the past, a supporter of order and right, who dominates the film, removes its obstacles, restores harmony in effect; and an obvious villain, who often, ironically, drives the plot, forces the hero into certain actions. The difference between the two is often delineated as mythically simple as the wearing of white or black hats.

WINCHESTER 73 is fraught with noir anxiety. Noir is often considered a psychological genre, visualizing the traumas of its protagonist's head. 73 does this too, and is all the more disturbing in that that protagonist is lovely, homespun Jimmy Stewart, initiating here his great run of difficult films with Mann and Hitchcock. In many ways, good-natured and sweet, representing right and trying to restore disruptions to the natural order, he is also a near-lunatic who will stop at nothing to achieve murderous revenge, whose relentless quest mirrors Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS in its inhuman persistence, whose human instincts are frayed by this quest, and whose bursts of violence are genuinely terrifying to witness.
Comment:  Let's look at the Indian bits a little closer.

The first Indian appears in the crowd during the shooting competition. Lin buys a necklace made of rings from him. Lin then proves he's the best shooter by shooting bullets through one of the rings.

Out in the wilderness

But this benign Indian is soon forgotten. At the Riker’s waystation, the first sign of trouble is smoke signals drifting over the hills. Custer has just been defeated and the Indians are presumably on the warpath.

Never mind that the story takes place on the trail between Dodge City, Kansas, and Tascosa, Texas. It should've been set on the flat, endless plains. But even before the cacti make it clear, you're wondering where this mountainous desert landscape could be. Is this really what the Dodge City area looks like?

No, Winchester ’73 was filmed at the Old Tucson studio and in the saguaro-covered hills nearby. This is painfully obvious if you've ever visited Tucson. As usual, there's no mistaking the dramatic vistas of Arizona for the undramatic vistas of Kansas.

Was the choice of locations just a matter of convenience? No. The desert scenery provides a sense of rawness far removed from civilization, where danger (i.e., Indians) may lurk behind every rock or tree. It's the same reason John Ford used Monument Valley so often: to convey the sense that the frontier (again, meaning Indians) is more wild and threatening than it really was.

Injuns and the Injun trader

Lamont, the Indian trader, is called "Injun trader" to show that he and the Indians he deals with are both lowdown people. Lamont goes to deal with Young Bull, ludicrously played by Rock Hudson. Hudson looks about as "Indian" as Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, or Charles Bronson--which is to say, not very.

Young Bull and his men are half-naked savages. It's never said what tribe they belong to. The Young Bull name and the reference to Custer suggest Lakotas, while the Arizona landscape suggests Apaches. But since the movie is set in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle area, a good guess would be Comanches.

Not that it matters. Except for Young Bull and his love of precision rifles, these Indians have no names, no history, no individuality. They could be zombies or robots for all we learn about them.

Anyway, Young Bull doesn't like the worn-out guns Lamont offers but does like Lamont’s Winchester ’73. He grabs it from Lamont and (off-screen) kills and scalps him. Young Bull could have just taken the gun and sent Lamont away, but this is what screen Indians do: butcher people mercilessly.

Indians seek to slaughter

What do these Indians do with their newfound guns? Because they're savages, they don't have any kind of rational plan. First they chase Lola and her beau Steve into the midst of a cavalry unit they've surrounded. Then they chase Lin and his partner High-Spade into the same trap.

This sets up the big action set-piece. Fifty screaming Indians launch a full-frontal assault on a group of about 10 defenders. It would seem hopeless, but the good guys out-shoot and out-kill the bad guys at a rate of 10 to one. Even better, the maniacal Indians continue their suicidal attack, throwing away their lives by the dozens. Only at the very end do they think of riding around the defenders, attacking them from the rear, and overrunning them with their superior numbers.

By then it's too late. Lin shoots Young Bull and the Indians turn and flee. They attacked like ravening wolves, but without their leader, they run like scared rabbits.

Savages, killers, beasts. So much for the psychological depths of Winchester ’73. The 1950s did give us some complex portrayals of Indians, such as Broken Arrow (1951), which also starred Jimmy Stewart. But Winchester ’73 contributed nothing to this trend.


Despite its bias against Indians, Winchester ’73 is well-acted and visually impressive. But the final shootout that everyone raves about seems a bit predictable and clich├ęd. Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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