So we’ve reached the 1950s, and that means Westerns. Lots and lots of Westerns.
While I don’t normally enjoy the Western as a genre, probably because it was a TV staple when I was a kid (anything that wasn’t a cartoon was considered, by 5-year-old me, to be a waste of air time but Westerns were particularly odious because they go so slow), the ones on the 1001 movies list are purported to be essential watching, so I’m giving them a fair shot.
We’ve had a few in there before, some good, some really, really bad, but the one thing that will shock modern audiences is the reason for the ever-present sense of danger whenever anyone is traveling from one place to another: them there hills are full of indians. Always.
In a way, I’m glad the 1001 movies list I have dates from 2004. Though I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure any new editions would remove any film with a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for reasons of political correctness (it might be interesting to see what else would get removed. I doubt Birth of a Nation would survive). That is, of course, modern audiences’ loss, since some of these films are true gems.
Perhaps the constant threat of indians waiting to strike at any moment is what made me hate them as a kid (I loved the gunfights on horseback, of course, but not waiting for them). Westerns could pace the action in a leisurely way because adults never knew when the attack would come.
The plot of Winchester ’73 doesn’t center around the indian threat. It’s about two men who have a history between them and the pursuit of one by the other. It also deals with a gun, the Winchester of the title, which changes hands a surprising number of times, and is used as the key to making men show what they’re truly made of. But the big battle scene is basically a standard “brave cavalry surrounded by masses of indians” stock trope. It’s a good fight, and it is necessary–if not central–to the plot. I suppose you couldn’t have a Western without it.
The film is tense for other reasons, too, with a cast of villains and morally ambiguous characters (including the leading lady), serving to contrast with James Stewart‘s inflexible do-gooder.
If you can set aside your modern sensibilities for a while, this one is worth watching. Not hugely memorable, but certainly an entertaining hour and a half, and better than most Westerns.
The funniest aside on this one is what the lead actress thought of the movie. Shelley Winters basically said that she could have walked off the set and no one would have noticed, as the movie was about a bunch of men pursuing the perfect gun and paying very little attention to the beautiful girl.
She may have been right but, like the indians, the plot would have suffered had she not been there. The balance was just right for this particular film, which is why it earned its spot on the list.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has hundreds of short stories in print (even a Western / Scifi / Monster mashup, his only Western). His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death a series of linked tales that make up a single narrative. You can buy it here.