The Psychological Tone
In contrast to the melodramatic purposefulness that marked B Western types, heroes and villains in the newer format could appear tentative, confused, or even psychotic. No longer trite shoot-'em-ups, the new TV Westerns were often psychological studies.
This was well understood by contemporaries who frequently commented on the emotional tenor of many series. The noted director and video personality, Alfred Hitchcock, quipped in 1957 that "there seem to be no more villains—now we have only good guys and neurotics."The president of one TV production company praised the Western in 1958 as "emotional" drama so filled with character development that often there was "not a shot fired or a horse in sight." Producer Aaron Spelling considered it a compliment when a sponsor compared his Johnny Ringo to one of the most celebrated dramatic series in television history, remarking, "That's no western. It's a regular U.S. Steel.""
The producers of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp immodestly linked their television series to the tradition of precedent-setting psychological Western films such as Shane and High Noon. In describing the enduring qualities of adult Western movies, they suggested that Wyatt Earp possessed similar greatness.
In the past few years a few Westerns have been realized which deal with their subjects in an adult fashion. The characters portrayed are believable men and women, some good, some bad, but most displaying a mixture of strength and weakness in varying proportions. The other elements of the Western may be present—Indians, buffaloes, cowboys, etc.—but life is not portrayed as an eternal succession of these elements, one in perpetual pursuit of another. The names of these movies, significantly, are well-known and have escaped the usual fate of the typical grade-13 Westerns—the fate of lost identity.
The psychological flair in these programs was depicted in a multitude of ways. "Black Harvest" was an emotive episode of Johnny Ringo aired April 7, 1960. It concerned an older man who kept his wife in constant terror because he feared she might leave him for a younger man. "Dos Pinos," an installment of The Westerner on November 4, 1960, told of three sadistic drifters who shot and wounded a local rancher and were now taking bets on whether he would die before morning.
In an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive, the psychological emphasis was recognizable in the remorse and soul-searching of Josh Randall after apparently killing a young man he mistook for a wanted criminal. The entire Branded series, treating as it did a soldier wrongly accused of cowardice and ignobly mustered out of the Army, was a psychological study of a frontier man seeking restoration of his self-respect and social acceptability.
In probing the inner constitution of its characters, the TV Western sought a more complete understanding of the human spirit. Knowing what made Paladin, the Cartwrights of Bonanza, or the Maverick brothers "tick" became integral to an appreciation of these series. Sometimes there was little mystery. The opening scenes of Branded always showed Jason McCord being stripped of his rank, having his sword broken, and ignobly leaving the fort where he once had been a captain in the U.S. Cavalry—all this while a chorus sang in the background about the court-martial that had mistakenly convicted him of cowardice in the face of battle.
In the case of the short-lived series, The Loner, the psychological boundaries of the program were immediately delineated when a narrator described the character of William Colton, a disillusioned former officer in the Union Army who now rode the West in search of meaning:
In the aftermath of the blood-letting called the Civil War, thousands of ruthless, restless, searching men travelled west. Such a man is William Colton. Like the others, he carried a blanket roll, a proficient gun, and a dedication to a new chapter in American history: the opening of the West.
Usually, however, viewers discovered the inner qualities of central characters by observing their reactions to situational pressures. Most poignantly this was the pattern in "Squeeze Play," an episode of The Rifleman telecast December 3, 1962. Here was the cowboy champion with his personal values exposed. Lucas McCain openly discussed his private reasons for settling on his present ranch. He also spoke his fatherly love for his young son. McCain also testified to his strongly held belief that a man must live by principles. Lamenting that for too many people "sometimes it's only a word," he explained that "there has to be something we live and feel, not just something we talk about."
McCain had his convictions tested when an unscrupulous land speculator tried to force him to sell the ranch. He was brutalized by thugs. His fence was knocked down and his house was set on fire. Even his friends urged him to capitulate. In a final scene at McCain's ranch, he was savagely beaten by three burly employees of the speculator. But his fortitude in withstanding such punishment exasperated the antagonist who called off the intimidation. Still, before his adversaries left the ranch, a bruised but undaunted McCain demanded $5 owed him for replacement of the broken fence. It was an act of inner courage and integrity.
While such presentations probed the mentality of settlers on the frontier, experts on the history of the American West discounted these video series as Hollywood distortions of reality. After all, this was Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, not Deadwood, Tombstone, or Carson City in the nineteenth century. Whether set in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory (The Dakotas), the deserts of the Southwest (Trackdown), or any spot along the Oregon and Santa Fe trails (Wagon Train), their actual backgrounds were usually California locations such as the Conejo Ranch, Mt. Whitney at Lone Pine, Big Bear Lake, Pioneer Town in the Mojave desert, Gene Autry's La Placentas Ranch, and Squaw Valley. Occasionally, however, series were filmed at facilities near Gallup, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona.
Furthermore, the well-coiffed, handsome and principled heroes of the video screen hardly resembled the denizens of the authentic Wild West. The true Johnny Ringo did not look like the good-looking Don Durant; the real Ringo was tall and skinny and died of tuberculosis in his mid-thirties. Wyatt Earp never rose above the rank of assistant marshal in Dodge City, partly because of his friendship with the psychopathic criminal, Doc Holliday, and Doc's disreputable girlfriend, "Big Nose" Kate. Bat Masterson was a professional gambler, as well as a law officer, who cautioned against the quick draw—"Take your time and don't miss," was his real advice to deputies. And William Bonney, Jr.—the legendary Billy the Kid—was in reality a homicidal transplant from the slums of New York City who murdered 21 men in the New Mexico territory before he was shot down.
Veteran cowboy actor Tim McCoy, himself a former wrangler born at the end of the nineteenth century, discussed the inaccuracies of the filmic Western hero. Interviewed in Mike McElreath's documentary film from 1972, Brave New Cowboy, McCoy differentiated between the mythical and the actual.
There were never heroes out West ever. They've been made heroes by books that have been published about them. And then when they put them on the screen, they were more glorified heroes than they were even in the books. The fellows who were supposed to be the gunmen and the deputy marshals in most of those towns were nothing but a bunch of tin-horn gamblers. It's quite true they put a star on so they could carry a gun and protect themselves. And they all had an interest in every gambling joint and whorehouse in town.
Few series attempted to deal realistically with the historic West. When they did, however, it could cause consternation. In the Fall of 1959, for example, the producers of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp aired an episode depicting the historic Johnny Ringo as a coward who refused to stand up to Marshal Earp. This portrayal, however, upset the producers of the television series Johnny Ringo. They set about to write an episode in which Earp and Doc Holliday backed down in a disagreement with Ringo.
With its docudrama approximation Stories of the Century had the sense of historical reenactment, but for authenticity nothing surpassed The Real West and its interpretation of frontier realities. The Real West was an installment of NBC's prestigious documentary series, Project XX. It was telecast originally on March 29, 1961, but it was rerun several times thereafter. Cited by media historian A. William Bluem as "among the finest Theme Documentaries created for American television," it examined the American wilderness that was settled between 1840 and 1900.
The Real West presented the unglamorous verities of the hinterland as it was being occupied by hardy pioneers from points east. Through film footage and still pictures, narrator Gary Cooper argued that the Wild West was a literary fiction created for thrill-seeking Eastern readers by pulp writers like Ned Buntline. In fact, according to Cooper, the West "had hardly really got woolly" when Eastern civilization began to arrive.
For one thing, too many men had burned too many beans. The winters seemed longer, and the lonesome seemed thicker. So they wrote home for Mary Ann. And when she arrived—by the thousands—respectable and strong-willed, she said, "We've got to make this a fit country to raise kids in." And then the West knew it was going to have to start shaving on Sunday and stop wearing its galluses looped across its butt. Gold dust had gotten gritty to the taste and was mighty thin nourishment. A can of peaches looked real good to a man who had been on a steady diet of his own or his neighbor's beef.
Soon the railroad, law, town planning, schools and colleges, and religion were firmly rooted on the frontier. From the implantation of high culture to the importation of nontippable spittoons, Eastern civility quickly modified the Wild West. And it was desired, for in the words of one pioneer, it was part of "all that is needful to transform the wilderness into Arcadia."
The video Western, like its counterparts in radio, motion pictures, and literature, was designed to appeal to the present day for, as TV scholar Horace Newcomb has noted, "television has made the Western into a lens through which we can view our contemporary culture." If it probed character and psychological construct, it was because viewers preferred this deeper dramatic scope to earlier cowboy forms. If its champions were virtuous and handsome and athletic, it was because this was how mid-twentieth-century Americans envisioned their nation-building progenitors. And if it fictionalized an environment in which morality always triumphed, it was because such myths explained and justified the moral tenets of modern society. Self-flattering and reinforcing, the mythic West depicted in the adult Western was at base: a metaphor for the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.