Sophistication Of The Genre
While it flourished on American television in the 1950s and 1960s, the Western was compelling fictional amusement. More than simple diversion, however, the genre as a cultural construct also operates as an educative conduit through which important social and personal lessons are disseminated. In this way the Western communicates as a secular parable. Set primarily in the past where history may be manipulated to serve contemporary purposes, it is filled with symbols and symbolic actions relating directly to the popular mentality of the society accepting it as entertainment and moral guide.
How often has the genre portrayed the value of responsible social freedom? How often have democratic themes of tolerance, equality, and human dignity emerged as the moral of a cowboy drama? How frequently has the Western proffered those symbols of modern life—church, fence, schoolhouse, family, ranch house, jail, graveyard—as guideposts in the establishing of roots and the flourishing of organized social life? How often have such capitalistic tenets as hard work, individuality, and self-reliance appeared as honorable characteristics of the Western hero?
Certainly, in the case of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the genre was intended as neither calculated indoctrination nor historical reconstruction. Yet, just as surely as the mythology of ancient Greece explained and sanctified the social arrangements of that civilization, televised tales of the Old West were temporal national myths that through moralistic analogy communicated to a particular public.
In the juvenile format, moralizing factors were heavy-handed. With Sunday school frankness, champions were good and villains were evil. The adult TV Western, however, always allowed for broader manipulation of its generic components. Younger minds might appreciate the incidental action; but the complexity of its stories and characters was intended for grown-up appreciation.
A favorite motif of the Western has always been redemption of the fallen, the notion that in the West a person could rediscover himself or herself, could make a new start in a new land, could escape the confusion of earlier failure in the East and find social salvation in the forgiving West. The theme has obvious roots in Christian theology and, more immediately, in the advance of U.S. democracy and political hegemony from New England to the West Coast. In "The Colter Craven Story," as it appeared on Wagon Train on November 23, 1960, this motif was powerfully communicated.
As directed by John Ford, the master director of Western motion pictures such as Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, this story told of an Eastern doctor whose self-confidence was shattered by his experiences during the Civil War when at the battle of Shiloh most of his patients died. Now an alcoholic and a broken man, Dr. Colter Craven came to the frontier to forget in alcohol and anonymity.
The theme of this episode was that through renewed acceptance of responsibility the dispirited could obtain redemption. Major Seth Adams, leader of the wagon train, had no sympathy for the drunken self-pity exhibited by Craven. Himself the essential pioneer, full of purpose and discipline and out to create a new Eden, Adams refused to indulge the fallen physician. In harsh words he blasted Craven's weakness, calling him
the eighth wonder of the world—a living man without one single solitary gut. Who do you think you are to sit in judgment of yourself? What makes you think that you ought to be infallible? You aren't the only one who was at Shiloh. You're not the only man who wanted to push his memories back into a bottle and put the cork in. What right have you got to make yourself personally responsible for the war?
The program reached its climax when the inebriated doctor was compelled to perform a Caesarian delivery, failure to operate meaning certain death for both mother and child. To overcome Craven's initial reluctance, Adams related the story of Ulysses S. Grant's personal redemption—from being dismissed from the military for alcoholism, to his recovery to become General of the Union Army and later president of the United States. "He had a lot more responsibility than you, Doc," prodded Adams, and "he used that responsibility to redeem himself. It isn't often a man gets a second chance. What are you going to do?" His hands now steadied and his self-confidence restored, Craven saved mother and child and himself through this surgery in the wilderness.
This was entertaining television, and it was enhanced by the reuniting of that trio responsible for so many classic Western feature films—John Ford, Ward Bond, and John Wayne in his only TV dramatic performance, an uncredited cameo role as General William T. Sherman. More importantly, in this diverting hour millions of viewers were offered a familiar lesson. In the image of a reprobate physician rescuing himself there was an impressive model for countless "Colter Craven types" needing encouragement to overcome personal calamities. Even for those without such debilitation, the story reaffirmed the need for continued self-control and social responsibility.
The writer who best understood the symbolic potentialities of the broadcast Western was John Meston. One of the originators of Gunsmoke, he wrote 378 scripts for its TV and radio versions. Meston's compositions were deceptively simple, distinguishable by their subtle glorification of the civilizing process operating within the pioneer town, and by their sensitivity to human character and personality in conflict with unforgiving nature.
In Meston's worldview, Dodge City was man's hope in the wilds. There may have been disruptive elements in the town, but it was still preferable to the naked brutality of the hinterland. Within Dodge City there were laws and cooperative arrangements. This was organized society, not Rousseau's state of nature. Here the social contract of John Locke and the spirit of the laws of Montesquieu blended to offer protection and, consequently, hope for future survival. A citizen had to abandon some freedoms to cohabit in Dodge City; but what a person surrendered to join civility was the anarchistic freedom of the wild animal within the kill-or-be-killed natural world, the freedom to perish at the hands of predators or the environment without the help of home, neighbors, or social institutions. Meston's comprehension of the genre was poignantly demonstrated in "Pucket's New Year," televised January 5, 1957, but produced originally on the radio version of Gunsmoke one year earlier. The story concerned Marshal Dillon's rescue of an old buffalo hunter named Pucket who had been shot and robbed by a partner, then left to die on the winter prairie. A fiercely independent, if slightly ignoble savage, Pucket balked at the thought of a doctor's care, even though his life was saved only by skillful amputation of much of his infected foot. Further, the prospect of settling permanently inside the protective town ran against the grain of this man from nature. After threats and bouts of depression, Pucket hatched a scheme to escape Dodge City by robbing the bank.
Dillon had little difficulty thwarting the old man's plan. With the would-be thief still in the bank, the marshal merely drove off the horse and wagon that Pucket had readied for an escape. More formidable a challenge, however, was the taming of Pucket's feral instincts and the conversion of this antisocial man to useful citizenship. Dillon accomplished this by dropping the robbery charges and arranging for Pucket's employment as a "shotgun" on the stagecoach, himself now guarding against possible robbery.
It was a masterful tale of the domestication of a wild man. It was Dillon's concern for human life that rescued Pucket, a wounded animal, from the unmerciful wilderness. It was a civilized doctor's medicine that saved his life. Although hobbled and apprehensive, it was the rational process of town life to which Pucket physically and emotionally had to submit or perish.
Ironically, the decision to make the old man an armed guard gave him major responsibility for protecting the stagecoach as it traveled through the inhospitable wild, transporting citizens and goods between isolated pockets of civilization. The brutal instinct of Pucket, a lame old churl from the anarchy of the wastelands, was now civilized and in the service of organized humanity.
Whether juvenile or adult in its orientation, the Western was a staple of television programming for more than two decades. As standard a video offering as situation comedy or the detective story, the Western had roots deep in the national culture, and its TV manifestation seemed only a logical function of timelessness.
Yet the genre did not survive. In fact, the Western by the 1980s had practically disappeared from prime-time network TV. Where once a quarter of all network evening fare had been cowboy dramas, Western programming ceased to be viable on television. It was an unexpected outcome. Except for war series, which did not enjoy overwhelming popularity, never in television history had a genre collapsed so completely. Yet the history of the Western from the mid-1960s to the present strongly indicates that the genre remains lifeless—and in that passing are important implications for modern American political, social, and cultural thinking.