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.
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.
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.
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
Perhaps the most self-conscious moralist of television's first western
stars was Gene Autry, who in the early 1950s authored the Cowboy
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,
9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws
of his country.
10. A cowboy is a patriot.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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,
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.
Richard. Television Westerns: Major And Minor Series, 1946-1978.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1987.
Gary A. Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western
on Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.
See also Cheyenne;
Brothers Presents; Walt
Disney Programs; Zorro;