MovieChat Forums > Winchester '73 (1950) Discussion > A primitive revenge western?

A primitive revenge western?

In my opinion, Winchester '73 suffers severely from a heavy-handed and highly moralistic writing of Borden Chase. Much has been said about the fact that James Stewartss character is at the verge of madness and some see this as a sign of complex morality. The logic seems to be that the presence of a mentally unstable hero surely must express an attempt to deconstruct the myth of the hero. However, this view overlooks the simple fact, that the extreme emotions of the hero are not first and foremost expressions of his own disposition but caused by the severity of the crime committed by the bad guy. It is true that one could imagine less extreme reactions to this crime - but that is just what makes Lin McAdam a hero: his sensitiveness and his deep moral integrity. A Western Hamlet, so to speak.

In other words, the morality of the movie is disturbingly primitive. We have a sensitive and highly moral hero on hand and an extremely slimy bad guy on the other. The effect is that the movie is a dangerously powerful endorsement of revenge.



Thank you for taking the time to comment. I will need to rewatch the film before I try give a complete answer, but for now I'll just say, that it seems to me, that we agree in comparing Lin McAdams to Hamlet. In my opinion, Hamlet is exactly unstable because of the severity of the crime(s) committed around him. He is the quintessential sensitive hero. And, in my opinion, this is just how Mann is trying to show us Lin McAdams.

You are saying, that Hamlet is the "textbook example of a 'mentally unstable hero'" - and you try to prove that Lin McAdams is a highly unstable hero.

But let's forget Hamlet, then, and concentrate on Lin McAdams. I'll be back a soon as possible.

Westerns seen so far:


I am not sure that Lin is a "hero" in any traditional sense. He spends the movie obssesivly hunting down his own brother. It is hard to see his quest as a moral action, or as representing any moral philosophy. Winchester is a revenge tale, one with some shades of gray, it is not a moral inquiry. If you compare every film you watch to some high philosophical ideal, you are not going to find many that meet your standard. Also Winchester 73 has nothing at all to do with Hamlet. I find your comparison to be disturbingly primitive and a dangerously powerful endorsement of douche-baggery.
"Your only hunger will be for power. Your only thirst will be for vengeance." Lex Luthor


Hi.... 5 years later! Ha ha, the beauty of internet and old imdb threads.

I enjoyed the film, but would put it in my "Sunday afternoon hangover" category. I didn't find much depth to it, at least in terms of characters. The social commentary was definitely more interesting than some lesser Westerns and their "evil Indians" narrative, but as much as I love James Stewart, Lin is very much a "hero" in a traditional sense. There are no grey zones. He's patient, brave, a sharp shooter, selfless, respects the rules, polite and considerate with the ladies, friendly, even cracks a joke now and then, and he shoots his brother, fair and square. Yawn. No flaws. If anything, I was more interested in his brother and their relationship with their father.

"Chinese girls do not come with green eyes"


I think I agree generally with you, janniklindquist, that the movie veers to close to affirmative moralism, especially in its final moments (and I think your account of the film is excellent). The Winchester signifies differently according to who's holding it (exploitation of native peoples by the Indian trader, the threat of the Other by Rock Hudson, senseless masculine posturing by Waco Johnny) but in the end the movie appears to show Lin heroically reinscribing it with the morality of the father, the name of the father, through killing his treacherous brother (who doesn't even dare go by the family name).

But still, I think the rifle is a fascinating phallic symbol and criticizing the movie for being too moralistic seems like a simplification. This movie needs a more complicated reading.


ANY movie whose plot (and main character) is driven by revenge has a primitive morality. Because that is what revenge is: primitive.

I don't think your so-called primitive morality is a mistake here, or in any way unintentional. This is not a pretty story about nice people. It's full of bitterness and cruelty. Winchester '73 was made at the height of the film noir period, and in my opinion it has MUCH more in common with those crime films of the decade (think "Out of the Past" starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas) than it does with Hamlet, or even other more traditional westerns.

I also don't think the film is an endorsement of revenge. If anything, it makes no judgements at all. We're following hard-bitten men who are in conflict, until one overcomes the other and the story ends.


The basic underlying narrative conflict´s indeed not a very complex one, but I didn´t find any of the characters overly one-dimensional or obvious and they all came across as believable human beings - McNally acted fairly sensibly ie non-murderously most of the time and I really don´t see how one can conclude that Stewart was "on the verge of madness" as his more emotional moments only occurred in the presence of his enemy, making him no more insane than any highly revenge driven protagonist from Glenn Ford in The Big Heat all the way to Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon films (in fact, he was ´less´ unhinged than those two). Also, I don´t think Mann was up to any real re- or deconstructions of the mythos of the western hero - it´s a fairly straight forward story in these regards, mainly set apart from your average classic western by the noir tinge Mann adds (that, and the relative rawness & sense of urgency to the violence uncommon to classic western era). And there wasn´t any overt "moralizing", either.

"facts are stupid things" - Ronald Reagan


Surely you noticed there were more stories packed into Winchester '73 than the brother rivalry? What of all the depictions of the weapon as power being wielded by different kinds of men, and their different needs for that power? The film runs the gamut with human-kind's applications and relationships with the gun, I found it a rich experience.


"Disturbingly primitive"? Really? Exaggerate much?



Most Westerns are morality plays, and in most Westerns (and most movies), morality is used as an excuse for the hero engaging in slaughter ...