The Western And Nationalism
In the blending of legal, moral, and political self-justification that was the TV Western, millions throughout this period of unprecedented international tension saw nightly dramas about the triumphs of their forefathers over mortal threats. From the adult TV format to vintage B feature films—movies whose spirit Johnny Mack Brown once described as "athletic and exciting and American, [and] that were born and raised in America"—Westerns for their times were, according to Chuck Connors of The Rifleman and Branded, "the American fairy tale."
As such the timely message of the genre was welcomed. Viewers of TV Westerns saw a nation of immigrants in the making. Here was their country in its formative years. Certainly, there were evil men inside the burgeoning new Eden, but they were being inexorably purged—routed out by good people and their emulable leaders—who lived unpretentiously by the word of their law and their God. In the Western motif, there was no compromising with outlawry.
Tying it all together was the immigrant's dream of new opportunity, a world in which to start again. Every Western settlement was the product of dreamers. Among the ranchers, homesteaders, bar girls, sheriffs, and other types who populated the video genre, there were few who had abandoned their illusions about a better tomorrow. This spirit was aptly summarized in the opening to "The Brothers of the Knife," an episode of Wichita Town telecast February 10, 1960.
Somewhere along the line someone nailed two boards to a dream and called it Wichita. But when you suck in a lungful of that Kansas heat, or feel the whip-burn of the winter wind, you wonder why people ever come here. Like as not, it's often to get away from somethin' worse. And there's plenty worse. Here in Wichita the dream's still nailed to that board—the heat cools—and the wind dies.
It was reassuring to see the shooting of a vicious gunslinger or the jailing of an anarchistic malcontent. It made the world a safer place. In their allegiance to law and order, these programs defended the American system against destructive divisiveness. Their heroes were mythic outriders of freedom, defeating the enemies of democratic civility and ensuring for law-abiding individuals the right to pursue happiness.
These Westerns were samplers of Americana, not because Theodore Roosevelt appeared in an episode of Law of the Plainsman ("The Dude" aired December 3, 1959) or Mark Twain met the Cartwrights of Bonanza ("Enter Mark Twain" aired October 10, 1959), or Phineas T. Barnum hired Jason McCord on Branded ("The Greatest Coward on Earth" aired November 21, 1965), but because in general the Westerns were compelling nationalistic homages that communicated an understandable and desirable interpretation of American social liberties and moral truths.
TV Westerns spoke directly to the innocence of American thought. They flattered their audiences by honoring the idealistic and lionizing self-sacrifice in the national past. Terming the hero of the genre a "six-gun Galahad," Time magazine in 1959 argued that the Western was "the great American morality play," a mythic scenario "in which Good and Evil, Spirit and Nature, Christian and Pagan fight to the finish on the vast stage of the unbroken plain." At its base, according to the Time interpretation, the Western proclaimed as its transcendent theme, the notion of human freedom. “In the freedom of the great plains the story of the West had its beginnings, in the freedom of the heart it seems to seek its end. In its finest expression, it is an allegory of freedom, a memory and a vision of the deepest meaning of America.
Yet, in a nation locked in a global contest with evil Communism, fearful of its future, and relatively inexperienced in great power international rivalries, matters such as human freedom were perforce politically partisan. Freedom was "ours"; slavery was "theirs." We were like those cowboy champions of liberty; they were like the outlaws who would enchain the body and crush the spirit.
Writing in the politically conservative National Review, William F. Rickenbacker at the time of the Cuban missile crisis touched upon the patriotic quality of the genre. As the two superpowers stood at the brink of global nuclear war, Rickenbacker found strength in Westerns, for they “speak a language very close to the heart of the American Dream: the dream of righteousness, the flowering of personal virtue and the power that flows there from, the selfless battle against Evil, a simple moral code, a sense of community, the respect for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the tempest tossed.
Such nationalistic interpretation of the Western, however, was as selective as it was simple. For a genre that stressed transcendent notions of human freedom, the fate of the Indians in such programs was contradictory. In reality, the Americanization of the West entailed the conquest and subjugation of those living for centuries in the "wilderness," the Native Americans. The Indians actually lost their freedom in the westward push of the white settlers from the East, fulfilling a self-conceived Manifest Destiny.
As for the American Dream, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it often had a nightmarish history of exclusion, exploitation, and distortion. This was especially true as it applied to racial and religious minorities, industrial laborers, and women. Few Westerns communicated this reality through their stories.
Furthermore, despite the message in many Westerns, the United States did not possess the only blueprint for human happiness. Throughout the world there were other viable patterns of social freedom, economic and governmental success, and civil harmony. Not everyone prized individual initiative within a competitive, laissez-faire economic system—most of the world relied on various cooperative or communal arrangements. Not everyone sought personal fulfillment within capitalistic free enterprise—achievement and happiness were still possible within societies marked by agricultural self-sufficiency, state-planned economies, and even the varieties of socialism. Yet, the Western implied that the socioeconomic forms established in the United States by heroic pioneers and cowboys were universal standards—the best mankind could devise, the most mankind could want.
In doing so, the genre had difficulty addressing historical shortcomings. The true history of the westward expansion is the story of U.S. imperialism—of political intrigue, territorial conquest, nations defeated and dominated, and socioeconomic hegemony obtained and sometimes maintained through physical prowess. But the Western thrived on innocence: honest motives for its champions, respectful admiration by its viewers. Flattering and self-congratulatory, the Western confessed nothing.
At the height of their popularity, video Westerns provided a useful explanation of individual and national responsibilities in the world. Although their stories were fictional, audiences could accept as essentially accurate the portrait they painted of American civilization chronically threatened by lawlessness. As explained in 1961 by Clint Eastwood, who portrayed Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, “I like to think that Rawhide is honest. We're doing stories as they happened. Generally speaking, we're doing the kind of things that guys really did on the cattle drives.”
Such programs spiritually linked audiences to the spread of U.S. domination over the frontier. Each drama suggested that modern Americans were heirs to a legacy of noble hopes and sacrifices from patriotic predecessors. The editor of a Western magazine touched upon this spiritual kinship when he wrote in 1958, “Though we are a peaceful people at heart, we let no one push us around, and find a warm kinship in reading of the Westerners who wouldn't be pushed either, and who so colorfully retaliated with six guns, fists or lariats.”
Important to this nationalistic lesson was the image of the wilderness inherent in the Western. In reality the various Indian tribes populating the central and western portions of North America were flourishing civilizations complete with sophisticated political, economic, social, and religious-moralistic systems. There were also other nation-states with historic claims to parcels of that frontier. But such matters were seldom treated seriously by television Westerns.
The video West was all American, and that meant Caucasian, usually Anglo-Saxon, and more likely Protestant than Roman Catholic. When Native American characters appeared, they were generally portrayed in one of three ways: noble anachronisms in the way of the white expansion; hostile savages harassing the innocent and disrupting the march of history; or, less frequently, assimilated and often fighting in the name of white social dominance.
Even when they were portrayed in this latter guise, Native Americans were expected to deal rationally with the abuse they received from whites. Typically, in "The Indian," an episode of The Rifleman aired February 17, 1959—which introduced Michael Ansara as Sam Buckhart, a Harvard-educated U.S. Marshal and the central character of his own series, Law of the Plainsman, that Fall—a lawman faced racial derision and threats on his life from otherwise law-abiding settlers, this because he was an Apache Indian and he was arresting a white man for murder.
If Buckhart was ridiculed by most of the whites he encountered, as a "tamed one" he demonstrated classic distaste for those Indians who operated outside the laws of their conquerors. He made this clear in "The Raid," a second episode of The Rifleman—telecast June 9, 1959—in which he appeared. Here, while following Apaches who had kidnapped Lucas McCain's son, Buckhart explained to his white friend the nature of those he was tracking:
You know the Cherokee, but I know the Apache. I know what must be done. I know that if their senses warn them that something is wrong, you've gotta stop breathing, stop living, stop being for the moment. And you have to think of happy things. And don't sweat because they can smell it and it'll kill you. You don't attack by day, but lie quiet, wait, and crawl. Crawl so they will not see you. Crawl so they will not hear you. You must kill them in the darkness, Lucas. Even the Apache must sleep. That's when you must take them, Lucas, when they sleep. Toomey is right, the Apache does not give back prisoners.
Such depictions prompted Indian rights groups to protest vigorously against the perpetuation of outdated racial stereotypes. In 1960 the Organization of Oklahoma Indian Tribes and the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) criticized network television for its distortions of Native Americans. While the AAIA approved of Native American representations in Law of the Plainsman, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, and Have Gun—Will Travel, it attacked series such as Wagon Train where "Indians are shown as drunken, cowardly outlaws" and "usually attacking wagon trains." The organization assailed the imagery on Laramie where Indians were depicted "holding white girls captive, in addition to other brutal action." And it complained that on The Overland Trail Native Americans were shown as "unbelievably stupid savages, believing in the most ridiculous witchcraft."
In response to this outcry, the Oklahoma state legislature in 1960 passed a resolution condemning network television for its treatment of Indians.
There is no excuse for TV producers to ignore the harm that may be done the children of America by repetitious distortion of historical facts pertaining to the way of life of any race or creed, including the American Indian. Many TV programs show Indians as bloodthirsty marauders and murderers.
At a time when civil rights sensibilities fostered racial pride and encouraged all minorities to protest their representation in American popular culture, traditional stereotypes were subject to criticism by activists. As late as 1971, for example, the Boston Indian Council protested syndicated reruns of Daniel Boone as being little more than white racist indoctrination especially detrimental to Native American children. Through local courts of law, a special Indian Committee was allowed to preview the Daniel Boone films and eventually delete 37 of the 165 episodes because they depicted "Indians scalping settlers, burning, dragging women, being called savage, red devils, painted devils, red monsters.
Among other racial populations traditionally abused in the Western were the Asians. In reality they played an integral role in building the West. Asian labor was particularly important to the construction of the railroad, which tied the Far West socially and commercially with the rest of the nation. In the video West, however, Asians were relegated to traditional stereotypes as cooks and experts in laundry. When a program like The Wild, Wild West was set in San Francisco, Chinese would appear as shadowy criminal types preoccupied with Tong wars and criminal plots against white men. The characters Hey Boy and Hey Girl on Have Gun—Will Travel and Hop Sing on Bonanza preserved the image of the comic, childlike Chinese servant happy to serve tolerant Caucasians. In only a few instances—such as "The Queue," a Gunsmoke episode aired December 3, 1955—did the genre display the Chinese as culturally proud and dignified and victimized by frontier bigotry.
Not until 1972 and the appearance of Kwai Chang Caine, the central character of Kung Fu, did the TV Western offer an Asian character who was more recognizably human. Nonetheless, even this character had his familiar limitations: he was depicted with "inscrutable" Oriental mystery, he was prone to Charlie Chan-styled aphorisms, he was half Caucasian, and he was portrayed by a non-Asian actor. Furthermore, although the Chinese-American actor Bruce Lee—who appeared in 1966-67 as Kato in The Green Hornet and became in the 1970s an internationally successful star of karate movies made in Hong Kong—was a consultant to those developing Kung Fu, he was rejected for the leading role, reportedly because the producers felt a Chinese actor could not be accepted as a hero by the American television audience.
Other racial groups, particularly Afro-Americans, were scarce in the video Western. In reality, according to Philip Durham, "the negro cowboy, after the Civil War, moved out across the plains to play a significant role in the development of the cattle industry and became a part of the spirit of the West—a spirit which demanded a conscience, but cared little for color." As historian William Loren Katz has explained it, in the authentic West black cowboys, gamblers, lawmen, and outlaws were an obvious part of the landscape. These characters included men and women. Blacks also were plentiful on the frontier for by 1890 there were half a million black men, women, and children living just in Texas and Oklahoma.
Yet on television, the black experience was practically nonexistent. Except for a minor supporting role or infrequent guest appearance by blacks on a few series such as Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Lawman, Bonanza, and Johnny Ringo there was little room on American video for anyone except Caucasians. The only series with an African-American in a leading role was The Outcasts on ABC in 1968-69. In this short-lived, controversial program black Otis Young and white Don Murray appeared as bounty hunters who were reluctant partners. Symbolizing the necessity for blacks and whites to work together in contemporary America, Young and Murray battled frontier hardships while struggling to keep their uneasy alliance alive.
If there was racial prejudice in the television Western, there also was consistent historical distortion. The actual history of the West was not one of unprotested U.S. expansion. In the nineteenth century the North American frontier was a hotly contested political vacuum. As well as the Indian nations that warred on the white expansionists, several foreign governments maneuvered to arrest the westward thrust of the United States. These included Great Britain, France, Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Spain.
In the TV West, however, these antagonistic nationalities were inconsequential. The heroes of the video dramas fought to defeat generic injustice, not to revive long-forgotten international boundary disputes. Television entertainment did not try to give history lessons to the uninformed.
On TV the wilds of North America were projected as a providential gift to the pioneer settlers from the United States. There was never a doubt the continental expanse would be Americanized. In fact, the entire area appeared as little more than a vacant wasteland eager to accept political and military control from Washington and breathlessly awaiting integration into the republic.
Such innocent imagery was crucial to the TV Western of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, such interpretation was a chronic function of a genre that, according to the French film critic Andre Bazin, should not be judged "by the yardstick of archeology." The Western proclaimed its message within a streamlined historic past that was modified by the present according to cultural specifications that were reassuring and uncompromising. The TV Western fit the temper of contemporary times. It helped to explain the problems of the modern world.
While no such series had an overt, flag-waving patriot as its central character, the symbolism within the genre was relevant to a nation locked in international competition. A triumph in the video Old West may have been popular cultural escapism, but it was also metaphorical victory for American goodness in the modern West. Pride in the achievements of Major Seth Adams of Wagon Train or the Barkley family of The Big Valley translated into pride in the contemporary United States, the nation created ultimately by their vision and courage. Such spiritual connection flowed inevitably from the genre, for as Thomas Schatz has written, "As America's foundation ritual, the Western projects a formalized vision of the nation's infinite possibilities and limitless vistas."' '
To accept such a preponderant number of Westerns on primetime television in the 1950s and 1960s, viewers had to approve of the community being forged or defended in each episode. In this manner, then, the Western heroes on TV were symbolic Cold Warriors. They showed how to win against treachery; they demonstrated that it was not necessary to coexist with evil.
In their characters and achievements Wyatt Earp, Matt Dillon, Cheyenne Bodie, and their video peers amalgamated historical precedent and modern dedication, all in justification of American prerogatives. They may have been fantasy heroes, but they were winners. It was an inescapable moral lesson. In a time of modern challenge, the television Western was relevant drama.