The western is America's myth, America's
drama, what opera is for the Italians or
kabuki/noh for the Japanese. It's the
framework for our national narrative.
I missed the golden age of the western
(roughly the '50s through the early '60s) as
I wasn't born yet. But I tried to make up for
that accident of timing later. In the '80s Pat Robertson's CBN channel would show old western TV shows on weekend afternoons. That's how I discovered classics like Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bat Masterson, The Virginian, Alias Smith & Jones, etc...
At the height of the form's popularity in 1959, one quarter of all prime time TV programs were westerns. Of course the great majority of this output was no better than workmanlike filler, but occasionally the TV sausage factories would turn out something extra special, worthy of comparison to the best western films. Here are a few of my favorite western episodes (in no particular order):
The Westerner - "Line Camp"
The Westerner was a short-lived TV series that aired in the fall of 1960. It starred Brian Keith as itinerant cowboy Dave Blassingame, who drifted around the West accompanied only by his loyal dog Brown (played by Spike, who had previously essayed the title role of Ole Yeller).
Created and produced by Sam (The Wild Bunch, Ride The High Country) Peckinpah (who had earlier created The Rifleman, but was screwed out of the credit), The Westerner presented a protagonist who was far from the typical Knight of the Sagebrush.
This episode was written and directed by Tom Gries. It memorably shows the gritty, mundane, unglamorous world of the cowhand.
Some of you western fans may recognize the story. Gries later expanded it into a feature script and directed it as the classic Will Penny.
Bonanza -- "The Crucible"
After being robbed in the desert, Adam stumbles onto the isolated camp of a seemingly chivalrous prospector named Peter Kane, who offers him a mule and supplies for three days work. However, Kane is in fact a demented madman who imprisons Adam and starts a dangerous game of psychological cat and mouse...
I'm not the world's biggest Bonanza fan -- it had too much soap opera, and Michael Landon gets on my nerves. This is probably my favorite episode (supposedly Pernell Roberts' favorite as well), with an intriguing premise and the great Lee Marvin at his Lee Marvinest.
The Big Valley, which imitated Bonanza in so many ways, did a similar episode entitled "Journey Into Violence":
Heath is kidnapped by a religious sect who accuse him of murdering one of their members. Acting as their own judge and jury, they convict Heath and he is sentenced to a life of slavery to atone for his crime.
A premise reminiscent of "The Crucible", but this episode emphasizes romance -- a girl from the cult (as it happens, the widow of the man he killed) falls in love with Heath and tries to help him. She's played by Quentin Dean (yes, that's her name -- she's best remembered from the Oscar-winning In The Heat Of The Night).
Daniel Boone - "Nightmare"
On the trail returning home to Boonesborough, the Boone family is attacked by renegade Shawnees. When Daniel is captured, his young son Israel must somehow rescue him.
One of the best episodes of the series, an action-filled classic that is basically one long chase. Direction credited to veteran George Marshall (The Blue Dahlia, Destry Rides Again).
An intriguing, seldom-discussed aspect of the early TV westerns is how some used their B&W photography to create a kind of noir ambience.
The half hour Gunsmoke certainly did this in many night scenes of Dodge City, and The Rifleman became iconic for its nighttime showdowns, kettledrum booming on the soundtrack, between Lucas McCain and the heavy of the week.
Perhaps the noirest western of all was Rawhide, which was also notable in that it emphasized supernatural aspects far more than any other TV western. A number of episodes such as "Incident of the Executioner" and "Incident of the Blue Fire" deal with the drovers facing strange phenomena on the trail that they cannot explain.
Rawhide - "Incident of The Prophecy"
This is an especially eerie episode where a preacher puts a curse on the drovers for killing his brother. The great guest stars are Dan Duryea as the vengeful preacher and the inimitable Warren Oates as a jittery object of the curse.
That's just a few of my favorite western TV episodes (if you're wondering why I chose these, it's because they're the ones available on YouTube). I hope in future blog entries we can explore the subject further.
If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.