The Western As Legal Drama

Above all, central characters understood their activities in terms of the law. Law was at the foundation of the civilization they protected. Without law there was no order or process, no purpose, no society. Conversely, the certainty in the law they upheld created credible, noble champions.

In the view of scholars Horace Newcomb and Robert S. Alley the Western—as "America's primary story of social authority, of the legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence in the process of creating order, making civilization"—explained "our reasons for having rules in the first place." However, Marshal Jim Crown phrased it more bluntly to a would-be lynch mob in "Broken Wing," an episode of Cimarron Strip television September 21, 1967.

Now we ain't got much law around here. But what law we have we're gonna follow. You all can build a gallows in your own backyard—if you have a mind to and if you've got the lumber. There's only one that's gonna be used, if it's used. That's over in Ft. Smith. The man that uses it is gonna have a legalized death warrant in his hand. Now you can chew on that and swallow it, and we just might then get along.

The TV West was a place where good, legal men stopped obvious criminals. Extenuating circumstances might have elicited a degree of compassion from the viewing audience, but they never blunted the law enforcement process. Ultimately, the rudimentary civilization nurtured on the television frontier had to be saved from corruptive, evil people. Even those guilty by reason of insanity had to be captured, reformed, or killed.

Given the overwhelming popularity of the genre, viewers at this time apparently agreed with the actions taken by their champions. Measuring desperadoes against popularly accepted standards of right and wrong, solutions were forthcoming quickly and decisively. In its streamlined way, the TV Western communicated, and viewers endorsed, a smoothly functioning, if simplified system of social justice.

Yet, the video Western projected an interpretation of the American legal system that was perhaps misleading. The complexities so frustratingly a part of modern legal reality were absent in this facile television world. Lawyers were practically nonexistent; and where they did appear, they frequently were shown to be dishonest. Court technicalities like restraining orders, search warrants, plea bargains, and trial delays were absent. Instead, decisions were apparent and swift, and justice was always served within a 30-, 60-, or 90-minute time frame.

This was a seductive legality, offering direct and often definitive action as the answer to social problems. When Sheriff Clay Hollister encountered noisy troublemakers in Tombstone Territory, how right it seemed for him to throw the rowdies in jail. Other TV law officers might have required fisticuffs or the butt of a gun to quell the trouble­makers, but malcontents were eliminated and society returned to tranquility if only for the moment.

Citizen avengers and paralegal heroes learned well their lessons in direct action. When the railroad investigator Jim Hardy on Tales of Wells Fargo or the mercenary Paladin on Have Gun—Will Travel had their lives threatened, how quick each was to draw and slay his op­pressor. At home and on the screen, moreover, few seemed to ques­tion the propriety of such a response. When the tranquility of the Lancer, Shiloh, or High Chaparral ranch was upset by outside forces, justified reactions by defenders of property rights and responsible social freedom ultimately resolved the dilemma. Even if such reactions involved killing, few at home seemed to denounce the need for such responsiveness—few apparently even wondered whatever hap­pened to the corpses of those shot down while operating outside the law.

This attitude was described by Robert Horton, a costar of Wagon Train, and later star of his own series, A Man Called Shenandoah. "The critics say there are too many dead bodies in Wagon Train," Horton explained in 1961. "If I'm going to be on next week's show, there must be dead bodies. In the period of history we're dealing with, it's either kill or be killed. Anybody who studies history knows that…."

The fine points of civil liberties and innocence-until-proven-guilty were not always applicable here. What the TV Western was offering was open warfare, a protracted battle between obvious legality and illegality. At stake was control of civilization. There was neither time nor reason for studied response. The answer to each dilemma was ob­vious: enough strategy, enough muscle, enough gunpowder. Through the concerted application of the brains and brawn of good men, this form of adult entertainment showed, indeed advocated, an efficient way to tame the savage and rescue humanity.

How well this legal philosophy was suited to a nation challenging civil rights illegalities at home while waging war abroad against illegal Communist aggression. At the beginning, both crusades seemed so right: Americans of African descent deprived of their social rights needed heroes, champions who would ride into dangerous situations, rectify oppressive problems, then ride away after thwarting the representatives of injustice and reforming the rest of the citizenry.

In the Vietnam War the scenario was equally appropriate. The Western was a natural metaphor for this undeclared conflict. Here bad Reds from the North and their renegade cohorts in the South were violating standards of decency by seeking to dislodge a good government in Saigon. Like those selfless do-gooders in so many TV West­erns, brave American men were now risking life and limb to help the besieged innocents of the South who wanted nothing more than a little land, a little peace, a little democracy.

Needless to say, neither the civil rights movement nor the Vietnam War continued to be so easily understood. There were so many com­promising developments in the civil rights movement: white backlash hostile to social reforms for African-Americans; internal dissention, even murders, within the black movement; rebellions in the urban ghettos; the election of political leaders ready to manipulate and exploit white fears. What began as a crusade for the achievement of fundamental legal rights degenerated into confusion and fell short of its goal. The formulaic framework of Western legality no longer fit the litigious world emerging by the end of the 1960s. In a society of court-ordered busing, mandatory quotas, federal-state-local guidelines on affirmative action, forced integration of neighborhoods, and the like, many people decided that the bad guys in the movement were good and the good guys were bad. This was something that would never happen in a Western.

Similarly, the war in Southeast Asia soon lost its innocent, cow­boy qualities. The noble self-sacrifice demanded eventually became socially disquieting. While many continued to ride to the rescue in Vietnam, there was a sizable contingency of doubters at home. Protest marches in the streets of the United States, the usage of narcotics by front-line U.S. troops in Vietnam, draft-card burners, clergymen protesting the war, dislike of the allied South Vietnamese troops, and the killing of U.S. officers by enlisted men in the field—these were not the hallmarks of Western-like military action. All of this developed in a conflict that legally did not exist since there never was a formal con­gressional declaration of war as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.

Continue Reading        Previous