I chose to view Winchester 73 and to focus on the portrayal of masculinity in the film. Right from the start, it is clear that this movie is about power, strength and who can be the ultimate man’s man. This struggle for power is embedded in the possession of the gun, which is the main symbol for masculinity. In the beginning of the film, Lin McAdam and his sidekick Frankie Wilson journey to Dodge City where Lin enters a shooting competition against his rival, who we later find out is his brother, Dutch Henry. The whole town, which has unsettlingly large male population, is watching to see which character can exert the most power. I wonder when exactly the gun became such a prominent symbol for manliness. Does shooting an object in the air really prove that one man has more strength than the other? Linn ends up winning the gun, immediately marking him as the most capable and most dominant man in town. But this struggle for the prized gun continues, becoming the central plot throughout the film. It gets passed back and forth between the outlaws and the good guys, depending on who gets killed, who has the best aim and who deserves it in the end.
The appearance of the men also makes an important statement about masculinity. Each male character in the movie is decked out in the typical Western outfit – cowboy hat, boots and, of course, a gun always attached to his side. When Dutch Henry and his partners find themselves without adequate gun supplies, they feel “naked.” Part of their manliness had been stripped from them, and they were desperate to get it back. It is clear throughout the film that weakness is associated with the lack of a gun or an adequate bullet supply to go with it. It strips men of power and exposes them to the vulnerability of being shot or defeated by another character.
However, the Indians in the movie, surprisingly, are not feminized. They too are constantly seen with guns and resort to shooting and violence for their territory. They are all muscular and seemingly have more bravado than the other male characters. Their struggle for power is also apparent through their desire for the Winchester, the supreme gun that no others can compare to. They refuse to be duped by any of the characters, and although their role is rather small, their characterization proves to fit right in with the fact that no men are allowed to weak or unguarded in the typical Western film.
Another point important to consider is that the first instinct of all male characters in the film is to fight or shoot. When Linn rightfully wins the gun, Dutch Henry has no hesitation in attacking him. When the Indians threaten characters, there is an all out war. When Linn wants to get revenge on Dutch Henry for shooting his Dad, his only option seems to be to kill him. Whether or not it’s the “good guys” or “outlaws,” each character chooses fighting and killing over negotiation and solving problems. Compromising and apologizing are associated with femininity, and no male character would risk that type of connection.
One interesting character, who may even say more about masculinity than the main characters, is Steve Miller, Lola Manner’s fiancé. He is represented as the weak character, who they refer to as “yellow” or scared. When Lola and Steve are chased by Indians, Steve gets off the wagon, gets on a horse and leaves Lola in the dust. Lola immediately becomes unattached to Steve and judging from her lack of emotion when he is shot, she doesn’t seem to love him anymore either. He takes no part in winning the prized Winchester, but instead is handed it, which strips the gun of its power and significance. When heading to their new home, Steve makes it a point that despite the fact that Lola has worked and made money, he has to take a trip in order to provide financial support himself. He can’t let Lola be the more dominant person in the relationship, which ultimately gets him shot in the end for meeting up with outlaw Johnnie Dean.
But masculinity is not the only important theme in the film. Femininity and what it means to be a woman is revealed in Lola’s character. Of course she is beautiful and desired by almost all the male characters in the film, and she is similar to the gun – a symbol for power. Whoever wins her over in the end becomes the most manly and the most deserving. This concept actually correlates with the plot of the film. When Steve has the gun, she is with him, but when Johnnie Dean takes it, she is with him and finally in the end, she is with the true owner: Linn. Lola is rarely given any actual authority in the movie. Men are hesitant to hand her a gun, she is asked to walk away during important conversations and her only true job is to make everyone around her coffee. Although in the end, without her presence, Linn would not have been able to win back the gun, she is still bounded by a strict definition of femininity, and without her beauty, she most likely would not have been a vital character at all.
– Cary Carr