Violence And The Adult Western

Violence was an integral component of most adult Westerns. In many cases it was promised by recurring scenes that each week intro­duced various series. In Gunsmoke it was the view of Matt Dillon striding into the street to draw against a challenger. Wichita Town opened with three bullets smashing through the glass window of Mar­shal Mike Dunbar's office. In The Rifleman it was Lucas McCain firing a dozen rifle shots in rapid succession, twirling his pump-action weapon in the air, then grasping it manfully in one strong hand.

Paladin of Have Gun—Will Travel always pointed his gun directly at the TV viewer, spouted a few intelligent sentences, then holstered it with military precision. With Christopher Colt in Colt .45, the violence was promised with a quick draw, a sudden turn toward the camera, and a rapid firing of shots to spell out the name of the series.

Several programs by their titles indicated violence. As well as those cited above, series like Shotgun Slade, The Restless Gun, Yancy Derringer, Gunslinger, and The Guns of Will Sonnett exploited fire­arms from their opening credits. Although the hero of The Adven­tures of Jim Bowie did not use a gun, he was the inventor of the Bowie knife, and he regularly displayed that menacing instrument. Only Man Without a Gun, a syndicated program in the late 1950s that concerned a crusading newspaper publisher in the Old West, and Gun Shy, a short-lived Western spoof in 1983, suggested an aversion to violence.

Ballistic savagery permeated all Westerns. It grew inevitably from the scenario of a world where adult men moved about their society with firearms strapped to their hips and rifles and shotguns holstered on their saddles. This was the visualization of a civilization armed against the ever-present threat of anarchy. Yet such dramatic representation was acceptable to American audiences. As one observer explained it in 1958, the violent imagery in the Western was understandable in terms of history and justifiable in terms of the debt contemporary society owed to the past.

Cruel the Western is and violent, but rustling, fence-cutting, monopolizing the water supply, and such situations upon which script writers freely draw, were threats to human subsistence. Out of such great struggle all through history came the safety which allowed societies to flourish and to build.

Ironically, in several series these deadly weapons were revered as well-crafted objects of veneration. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp featured Earp's imposing Buntline Special, a customized handgun with a 16-inch barrel. Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive wore a sawed-off, pump-action 44/40 carbine on his right hip. Sheriff Johnny Ringo carried a replica of the LeMat, a French firearm designed in 1863 to combine a six-shooter and a rifle. In a photographic essay entitled "Arms and the Western Men," TV Guide in 1960 glamorously high­lighted seven of these "most prominent players—the firearms that help Western heroes repel villains and attract viewers."

Significantly, the emphasis upon firearms in TV Westerns helped spur gun sales in the United States. By late 1958 weapons manufacturers were turning out 10,000 Western-type guns monthly to meet consumer demand. While admitting to the relationship between television programming and the rise in firearm sales, one manufacturer quickly added that "Western TV shows, as well as Western movies, should be judged not on the fact that guns are employed, but on whether the basic plot brings the Golden Rule out convincingly to youngsters who are watching it."

The veneration of firearms generated via the TV Western was in part symptomatic of a society locked in political and economic fear and reliant upon military strength to enforce its will in Cold War crises. The genre always possessed a militaristic flavor. As British scholar Herbert L. Jacobson wrote, in the first half of the twentieth century through motion pictures the "cowboy tradition helped keep alive the military spirit, which twice in a generation saved the country from domination by an autocracy bred on a Teutonic warrior tradition.” And even later, at a time of East-West confrontation when Americans were unused to a consistent military role in global politics, the militaristic TV Western offered explanations and justification. The United States Army, itself, explained its mission in the rhetoric of the genre.

Among the more instructive and violent adult series was Have Gun—Will Travel. This was ironic for as a Western it had a unique veneer of urbane sophistication. As portrayed by Richard Boone, Paladin often quoted poetry and made pithy references to great literature. He knew fine wine and was a connoisseur of haute cuisine. Dressed impeccably and conversing with elegant men and women, Paladin was thoroughly a gentleman. Most episodes commenced with him enjoying the luxurious lifestyle of the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco: dining with a beautiful lady of social standing, smoking an elegant panatela, deeply involved in a game of chess, or preparing for an evening at the theater. Yet, as with the society entertained by TV Westerns, out of this facade of civility emerged amazing violence—and all in the name of justice.

Paladin was a mercenary, a hired gunslinger employed by the de­fenseless as protection against a variety of threats. Dressed now in funerary black trousers with matching black shirt and hat, Paladin's alter ego emerged as a tough if rational avenger intent upon establishing justice. His dedication to right was so pronounced, in fact, he occasionally operated free of charge, resolving an inequity he inad­vertently encountered or undertaking a purely personal vendetta.

That Paladin could hold his own in the mayhem of the Wild West was ably demonstrated in "The Misguided Father," an episode aired February 27, 1960. Here the heroic Paladin dealt with a pathological killer, the unstable son of a timber baron who shot men impulsively. During the program Paladin was knocked unconscious from his horse and later engaged in a vicious fistfight that lasted a full minute of screen time. But the most striking aspect of the story was the incidence of murder. Counting both the dead bodies portrayed and the murders ascribed to the son and others, the final body count was impressive: the father killed one man; the son murdered ten; and Paladin slew the son. Despite the omnipresence of slaughter, Paladin maintained his emotional balance. In a most dispassionate tone, with his Colt .45 revolver still warm from having shot the crazed son, Paladin chided the distraught father: "My bullet, your mistakes."

The suave performance of Paladin, able to slay a man in one second and proffer wisdom in the next, marked not only Have Gun—Will Travel, but the adult Western in general as a stereotypical masculine genre. There were few female heroics in these TV series. The brawls, shootouts, and other forms of violence were products of male social prerogatives. David Dortort, the producer of Bonanza, consciously eschewed female interference in his manly Western. Speaking of the leading character in the series, the patriarchal Ben Cartwright, Dortort explained that "he is not led around by the nose by anybody. We do not have any Moms built into our show—or for that matter, any women. We are, as it were, anti-Momism."

James Arness also understood Gunsmoke and its viewing audience in terms of gender. "People like Westerns because they represent a time of freedom," he remarked in 1958. "A cowboy wasn't tied down to one place or to one woman. When he got mad he hauled off and slugged someone. When he drank he got good and drunk." In the interpretation of TV's Matt Dillon, "that is why they tune in on Western shows, to escape from conformity. They don't want to see a U.S. marshal come home and help his wife wash the dishes."

Indeed, no central character in a video Western ever came home to help his wife with household chores. Housework was unmanly labor for a frontiersman. Although Lucas McCain occasionally was shown preparing meals, he was a widower. But he soon taught his son to cook, and more often than not, this rifleman came home to dinner made by his child.

More significantly, however, few Western champions actually had a wife. There were other prominent widowers such as Murdoch Lancer in Lancer and Ben Cartwright of Bonanza. Several bachelor heroes like Marshal Jim Crown in Cimarron Strip and lawyer Clay Culhane in Black Saddle had eligible women regularly interested in them. Except for middle-aged John Cannon—the patriarchal ranch-owner of The High Chaparral who was a widower before marrying the young Mexican cattle heiress, Victoria Montoya—there was little evidence of domesticity in the lives of TV Western heroes, even though these men frequently risked their lives to safeguard family institutions and values.

If they were unmarried, moreover, these Westerners relished their bachelorhood. The closest a bachelor hero ever came to being married on a series was in "Three's a Crowd," an episode of Laredo aired October 14, 1965. Here Chad Cooper, part of the closely knit trio of young Texas Rangers featured on the program, actually became en­gaged, resigned his job, and prepared to leave town with his fiancée. However, his Ranger buddies needed him in a fight against warring Comanches, and rather than renounce the ties of male bonding, Cooper abandoned his sweetheart at the stagecoach, ended his engagement, and explained that "there are certain things a man's got to do."

As well as their scarcity as heroines in adult TV Westerns, women also were rarely the perpetrators or targets of physical violence. For the most part, men fought and killed one another. Certainly, barroom girls came in for occasional rough treatment at the hands of drunken cowboys or aggressive gamblers, but this usually meant nothing more than abusive language or a few slaps and pushes. The most abused character in this regard was Kitty Russell of Gunsmoke who several times each season had to contend with uncivil customers at her Long Branch saloon; but she lasted 20 seasons essentially unphased by the rough treatment.

There were, however, striking exceptions to this pattern. Occasionally women were killed in adult Westerns. This happened to a kindly grandmother in the opening scene of "Rope of Sand," a Laramie episode telecast February 16, 1960—mercilessly shot down with her husband by a robber interrupted while stealing their life savings. In "Die Twice," an installment of Johnny Ringo on January 21, 1960, the murder of a young wife was even more brutal. Here the woman was shot in the back by her outlaw husband as she ran from him directly toward the camera. The coup de grace was delivered by the outlaw's sidekick who picked up the slain woman's handkerchief, smelled its perfumed aroma, and while glancing at her corpse on the ground quipped wryly, "What a waste."

In "Three for One," an installment of Whispering Smith telecast on July 3, 1962, brutality against a woman was both implied and visualized. Upon discovering a robbed stagecoach with its driver and male passenger dead, Smith and his assistant speculated on the fate of the attractive female passenger apparently abducted by the mur­derers.

Assistant: (handling woman's parasol) Looks like there was a woman in that coach.
Smith: Um hum, there was.
Assistant: Think they took her hostage?
Smith: They took her, all right. They headed south, right through those hills.
Assistant: (pointing to dead men) Smitty, what about them?
Smith: Nothing more can happen to them. I'm not so sure about that girl.
Later in the story the violence became more graphic. When cornered by the lawmen, one murderer grabbed the woman, held a knife menacingly at her neck, and warned, "OK, mister, drop that gun or she's gonna get it right in the throat."

Less murderous, but nonetheless devastating, was the anti-female imagery in "Jeff," the premier episode of The Westerner. This power­ful series lasted only a half-season, but it was critically acclaimed at the time. The programs were produced and frequently written and directed by Sam Peckinpah—the filmmaker whose Western career included early writing and directing for Gunsmoke and The Rifleman and later direct­ing such controversially violent features as The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

As aired on September 30, 1960, "Jeff" offered a theme regularly treated in Peckinpah Westerns, the search for personal dignity. Set in a grim, barely populated barroom the episode concerned a sadistic bar owner and his masochistic girlfriend, a dispirited prostitute whom he dominated. Physically and emotionally abused by the antagonist, the young woman long ago had abandoned her sense of self-worth. Despite an earnest intervention, complete with a proposal of marriage from the virtuous hero of the series, she opted to remain with her "master." "Jeff" was a humiliating picture of rejected respectability and the triumph of sin and submission.

Reviewers did not dismiss the episode or the series as run-of-the-mill. The critic for The Hollywood Reporter was pleased with the program, terming it "breathless theater" and "a great show, a stand­out series, and its strongest competition in the weeks ahead will be its own standards." But in Variety the reviewer seemed ill at ease when he described "Jeff' as "tawdry" and "a shocker," a program filled with "peephole interest and violent displays," and carried out within a "sickening atmosphere." Two decades later a critic for the Los Angeles Times suggested that The Westerner "was maybe the only honest portrait of a cowboy that ever got onto film.”

 

Continue Reading        Previous