WESTERNS

The western has always been a dusty rear-view mirror for reflecting back on the U.S. experience. Whether celebrating the pioneering spirit of the Scotch-Irish invading class or lamenting the genocidal whitewashing of the continent under the banner of "Manifest Destiny," the western has operated as an instrument for navigating through the fog of contemporary political, social, and cultural anxieties by reinterpreting and rewriting the nation's mythic past. In the 1930s, during the most desperate days of the Great Depression, singing cowboys sporting white hats offered hopeful visions of good guys finishing first to a nation starved for optimism; during the dawning of the Cold War era, Hollywood's "A" westerns provided relatively safe vehicles for commenting on McCarthyism (High Noon) and American apartheid (The Searchers); prime-time westerns in the 1960s often addressed, though allegorically and indirectly, the generational discord of the decade, as well as the conflicting frustrations over U.S. involvement in an undeclared war; and in the 1980s and 1990s, revisionist westerns have taken multicultural angles on the western expansion (Dances with Wolves) or libertarian spins on the genre's long-standing infatuation with law and order (The Unforgiven). The western is, in other words, best understood as a "hindsight" form--a form that deploys the rich imagery of the Old West in an ongoing rewriting of the pride and shame of what it means be American.

This rewriting and reinterpreting of the American experience is even evident in the first "modern" western novel, The Virginian by Owen Wister. Published in 1902, Wister's classic cowboy novel sparked something of a range war in the heartland of popular literature. According to contemporary literary critics, Wister's novel and the rise of the cowboy hero represented a masculinist and secular reaction to the so-called "sentimental novel" that had been so popular in the late 19th century. In the tradition of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Women, the sentimental novel celebrated feminine moral authority, domesticity, and religion. The 20th century western, in stark contrast, denounced the civilized world of women and flaunted, instead, rugged images of courageous men free from the constraints of family. Ultimately, these taciturn men were more given to flirtation with death than with women, and more attached to their horses and six-shooters than they were to their mothers, sisters, sweethearts, wives, or daughters.

Although rooted in the novel, the first westerns appearing on television were more directly connected to Hollywood's mass-produced version of the genre. In television's infancy, recycled "B" westerns from marginal production companies like Mascot, Monogram, PRC, Lonestar, and Republic played a prominent role in transforming television into a mass medium by stimulating much of the initial enthusiasm for the medium especially among youngsters and rural audiences. Formulaic features and serials displaying the exploits of familiar names like Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson, and Tex Ritter were telecast locally, usually during juvenile viewing hours, in showcases with names such as Six-Gun Playhouse, Sage-Brush Theater, and Saddle and Sage Theater. Thanks to such scheduling, a survey of the programming preferences of children in New York City conducted in April 1949 ranked westerns at the top of the list, a full two percentage points ahead of Howdy Doody.

The astute marketing of William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy was by far the most profitable re-packaging of a "B" western hero in television's infancy. Performing as a romantic leading man in silent films, Boyd had trouble even mounting a horse when he first landed the role of Hopalong Cassidy in 1935. However, by 1948, after completing 66 western features, Boyd was not only at home in the saddle, but also savvy enough to secure the TV rights to his Hoppy films. In 1949, as a weekly series on NBC, Hopalong Cassidy ranked number seven in the Nielsen ratings--and Boyd quickly cashed in on his popularity through product endorsements that included Hoppy roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and, most notably, jackknives (of which one million units were sold in ten days). Clearly influenced by the Hopalong Cassidy phenomenon, the first wave of made-for-TV westerns was targeted specifically at the juvenile market, which was a particularly appealing and expansive demographic segment because of the post-war baby boom. Some of the first western series produced expressly for television, most notably The Gene Autry Show and The Roy Rogers Show, recycled prominent stars of the "B" western. Others, like The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger, were more familiar as radio series. All featured squeaky-clean heroes who modeled what was considered positive roles for their pre-pubescent fans.

Perhaps the most self-conscious moralist of television's first western stars was Gene Autry, who in the early 1950s authored the Cowboy Code:

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an     enemy.
2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to     animals.
5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
6. A cowboy is always helpful, and when anyone's in     trouble, he lends a hand.
7. A cowboy is a good worker.
8. A cowboy is clean about his person, and in thoughts,     word, and deed.
9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the     laws of his country.
10. A cowboy is a patriot.

With its emphasis on the work ethic and patriotism, the Cowboy Code adequately captures the seemingly-benign, though unapologetically sexist values animating the juvenile westerns of America's Cold-War culture. But "Thou Shall Not Kill" is noticeably missing from Autry's Ten Commandments--and this omission would later come to be the source of much public concern.

In the mid-1950s, as major powers in Hollywood stampeded into the television industry, a second wave of made-for-TV westerns would elevate the production values of juvenile programs and, more importantly, introduce the first of the so-called adult western series. On the kiddie frontier, Screen Gems, the TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, blazed the trail for tinsel town with The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin which premiered on ABC in October 1954. Walt Disney Productions ventured into the territory of TV westerns with three hour-long installments of the Disneyland anthology show that presented Fess Parker's clean-cut portrayal of an American legend: Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter (first telecast on 15 December 1954); Davy Crockett Goes to Congress (26 January 1955); and Davy Crockett at the Alamo (23 February 1955). The merchandising hysteria that accompanied the initial broadcasting of the Crockett trilogy even surpassed the earlier Hopalong frenzy as Americans consumed around $100 million in Crockett products, including 4 million copies of the record, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and 14 million Davy Crockett books. In the fall of 1957, Disney would branch out into series production with Zorro which celebrated the heroics of a masked Robin-Hood figure who was fond of slashing the letter "Z" onto the vests of his many foes.

On the adult frontier, four series premiering in September 1955 would start a programming revolution: Gunsmoke on CBS, Frontier on NBC, and on ABC, Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. While Cheyenne is notable for being part of Warner Brothers Studio's first foray into television production, the most important and enduring of the original adult westerns is, without a doubt, Gunsmoke. Adapted from a CBS radio series in which the rotund William Conrad provided the mellifluous voice of Marshall Matt Dillon, the television version re-cast the taller, leaner, and more telegenic James Arness in the starring role. Destined to become one of the longest running prime-time series in network television history, the premiere episode of Gunsmoke was introduced by none other than John Wayne. Positioned behind a hitching post, Wayne directly addressed the camera, telling viewers that Gunsmoke was the first TV western in which he would feel comfortable appearing. Linking the program to Hollywood's prestigious, big-budget westerns, Wayne's endorsement was obviously a self-conscious attempt by CBS to legitimize Gunsmoke by setting it apart from typical juvenile fare.

The impact of the adult western was stunning and immediate. In the 1958-59 television season, there were 28 prime-time westerns crowding the network schedule. That year seven westerns (Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Maverick, Tales of Wells Fargo, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) ranked among the top ten most-watched network programs. But the extraordinary commercial success of the television western was not without its detractors. Although adult westerns displayed characters with more psychological complexity and plots with more moral ambiguity than their juvenile counterparts, the resolution of conflict still involved violent confrontations that left saloons, main streets, and landscapes littered with the dead and dying. The body count attracted the scorn of a number of concerned citizens--but by far the most powerful and threatening figure to speak out against such violence was Newton Minow. On 9 May 1961, soon after being appointed the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission by President John F. Kennedy, Newton delivered his "vast wasteland" speech to a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters. In this famous harangue, the FCC chairman singled out the TV western for special denunciation. After roundly condemning the "violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men" on television, Minow rebuked westerns as a hindrance in the not-so-cold propaganda war with the Soviet bloc. "What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our western badmen and good men punching each other in the jaw in between the shooting?" Minow asked. "What will the Latin American or African child learn from out great communications industry? We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas."

In part because of such criticism from high places, and in part because of burn-out in the mass audience, the western would, once again, be rewritten in the 1960s. As the networks attempted to de-emphasize violence, the domestic western emerged as a kinder, gentler programming trend. In contrast to action-oriented westerns dealing with the adventures of law officers (The Deputy), bounty hunters (Have Gun, Will Travel), professional gunmen (Gunslinger), scouts (Wagon Train), cow punchers (Rawhide), gamblers (Maverick), and trail-weary loners (The westerner), the domestic western focused on the familial. The patriarchal Murdoch Lancer and his two feuding sons in Lancer, the matriarchal Victoria Barkley and her brood in The Big Valley, and the Cannon clan in The High Chaparral--all were ranching families in talky melodramas that attempted to replicate the success of the Cartwrights of Bonanza fame(Lorne Greene's Ben, Pernell Roberts' Adam, Dan Blocker's Hoss and Michael Landon's Little Joe). Television's most distinguished domestic western--and the first western series to be televised in color--Bonanza ranked among the top ten TV shows for 10 of its 14 seasons and for three consecutive years (1964-67) was the nation's most watched program.

Unfortunately, this gloss of the western cannot do justice to all of the interesting wrinkles in the genre. The innovations of series like Branded and Kung Fu are lost in such a brief accounting--and comedic westerns like The Wild, Wild West and F Troop can only be mentioned in passing. It is also impossible to catalog the accomplishments and contributions of the many talented artists who brought the western to life on television--whether working behind the camera (Lewis Milestone, Sam Fuller, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah, for instance) or in front of it (Amanda Blake, Ward Bond, Richard Boone, Robert Culp, Clint Eastwood, Linda Evans, James Garner, Steve McQueen, Hugh O'Brian, Barbara Stanwyck, and Milburn Stone, to name a few). Suffice it to say that this dinosaur of a programming form once attracted many of television's most creative storytellers and most compelling performers.

 


The Big Valley


Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman


Rawhide


The Virginian

In fact, no one was really surprised in 1987 when J. Fred MacDonald wrote the TV western's obituary in his book, Who Shot the Sheriff? Declaring that the western was "no longer relevant or tasteful," MacDonald noted the irony that "the generation [baby boomers] that once made the western the most prolific form of TV programming has lived to see a rare occurrence in American popular culture: the death of genre." Indeed, between 1970 and 1988, fewer than 28 new westerns in total were introduced as regular network series. The last time a western made the top ten list of weekly prime-time programs was in 1973 when Gunsmoke was ranked eighth. With the exception of the strange popularity in the early 1980s of made-for-TV movies starring singer Kenny Rogers in the role of "The Gambler," the thunder of the western has been silenced in prime time.

Even so, after the publication of MacDonald's book, the TV western would have at least one more moment of glory when the adaptation of Larry McMurtry's epic western novel, Lonesome Dove, became the television event of the 1988-89 season. The highest rated miniseries in five years, Lonesome Dove documented the final days of a life-long partnership between two characters who represent distinctly different models of manhood: Woodrow Call and Augustus "Gus" McCrae. Call enacted the strong, silent tradition of the western hero. Like John Wayne's characters in Red River (Tom Dunson) and The Searchers (Ethan Edwards), Call was a powerful, tireless, generally humorless leader who outwardly feared no enemy, though his rugged individualism drove him toward the misery of self-imposed isolation. Call was masterfully portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones--but it was Robert Duval's performance of McCrae that stole the show. Where Call's outlook was utilitarian, Gus's was romantic. In some ways, Gus resembled the funny, spirited side-kicks of westerns past: Andy Devine in Stagecoach, Walter Brennan in Red River, Pat Brady in The Roy Rogers Show, or Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis in Gunsmoke. But in Lonesome Dove, the eccentric sidekick achieved equal status with the strong silent hero--and as a counter-point to Call, Gus rewrote the meaning of the western hero. Valuing conversation, irony, the personal, and the passionate, Gus openly shed tears over the memory of a sweetheart. In a genre marred by misogyny since the publication of The Virginian in 1902, Gus was no woman-hater. Instead, Gus actively sought the company of women, not merely for sexual gratification, but for their conversation and civilization: he was as comfortable around women as he was around men. The rewriting of the western hero in the Gus character, then, goes a long way toward explaining why Lonesome Dove attracted a mammoth audience in which the women viewers actually outnumbered the men. For a story in a genre that has traditionally been written almost exclusively by men for men, this was no small accomplishment.

At the end of Lonesome Dove, Call returns to Texas after leading the first cattle drive to Montana. The quest for untamed land beyond the reach of bankers, lawyers, and women has been costly for Call. Narrow graves scattered along the trail north contain the remains of men who served with Call in the Texas Rangers, who worked with him in the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and who looked to him for friendship, leadership and discipline. As Call surveys the ruins of the forlorn settlement that he once called his headquarters, he is approached by a young newspaper reporter from San Antonio. An agent of the expanding civilization that Call has spent a lifetime loathing and serving, the reporter presses the uncooperative Call for an interview.

"They say you are a man of vision," says the reporter. Reflecting with anguish on the deaths of his friends (including Gus whose dying words were "What a party!"), Call replies, "A man of vision, you say? Yes, a hell of a vision."

As the final words of the miniseries, "hell of a vision" spoke to Call's disillusionment with the dream of Montana as "Cattleman's Paradise"--a vision that inspired the tragic trail drive. Defeated and alone, his invading heart had, finally, been chastened. But in punctuating what appears to be the great last stand of the cowboy on the small screen, "hell of a vision" takes on even more profound connotations as an epitaph--an epitaph for the television western.

-Jimmie L. Reeves

FURTHER READING

Barabas, SuzAnne, and Gabor Barabas. Gunsmoke: A Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series with a Comprehensive Episode-By-Episode Guide to Both the Radio and Television Programs. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1990.

Buscombe, Edward, editor. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Jackson, Ronald. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. Seacaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1994.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot The Sheriff: The Rise And Fall Of The Television Western. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Marsden, Michael T., and Jack Nachbar. "The Modern Popular Western: Radio, Television, Film and Print." In, A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

Peel, John. Gunsmoke Years: The Behind-The-Scenes Story: Exclusive Interviews with the Writers and Directors: A Complete Guide to Every Episode Aired: The Longest Running Network Television Drama Ever! Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1989.

West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1987.

Yoggy, Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

 

See also Cheyenne; Gunsmoke; Wagon Train; Warner Brothers Presents; Walt Disney Programs; Zorro; Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse