The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


Winchester ’73 (1950)

Dir Anthony Mann (James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea)

The gun club

1953’s ‘The Naked Spur’, in which a counter-cast Jimmy Stewart plays the leading ma, usually tops any list of Anthony Mann’s westerns. But we’ve gone for this stranger, earlier work, not only for its distinctive roundelay structure, but in recognition of its utter pessimism towards the notion that guns and gunplay stand as the last bastion of honour and justice in the Old West.

Though Stewart is on splendidly prickly form as stubborn bounty hunter-by-proxy Lin McAdam, the real star of the film is a limited-run Winchester repeater rifle that he manages to win in a Dodge City competition of stunt shooting. His vicious competitor, ‘Dutch Henry’ Brown (Stephen McNally), subsequently mugs him and relieves him of the phallic firearm as he’s leaving town, revealing to us that Lin and his faithful cohort ‘High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are actually on the trail of this dastardly killer, for reasons that remain cloudy until the shocking final moments.

While Mann expertly switches back and forth between the unpredictable progress of his two protagonists, his real interest is the fate of the rifle, as it falls in and out of the hands of a hustling bar owner, a mob of belligerent Indians and eventually the violent outlaw ‘Waco’ Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea). It seems that anyone who succumbs to the charms of this gorgeously crafted firearm ends up in a pine box, and in that sense the film can perhaps be read as a brittle parable about the futility of resorting to arms as a shortcut to peace. Nuclear warhead owners, take note. DJ