How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped these perceptions. I belonged to the last generation that lined up outside places like the Border Theater in Mission, Texas, to see the latest John Wayne movies, like El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit. Through METV, I hoped to learn something about 2017 in the entertainment of the 1950s and 1960s.

METV gives a snapshot of each show and a short description of each episode. The programs deal with social and ethnic issues that could be the background for today’s more revisionist westerns. Two chosen at random from The Big Valley in October 1965:

  • Heath investigates violence during a strike at a Barkley mine. He finds that the miners hate the Barkleys for promises not kept. The family sets out to make things right before the Molly Maguires strike again.
  • A hispanic family is in a land dispute with the Barkleys. Maria, the young daughter of the family, falls in love with Heath. Her father disapproves of Heath’s illegitimate birth, and uses the land crisis as leverage to force Heath and Maria apart.

From Have Gun, Will Travel, 1957 and 1958:

  • At a stagecoach stop, Paladin sees a peaceful Cherokee rancher being beaten by white men who think his cattle are spreading a sickness. Paladin offers his help.
  • Paladin is hired to stop a vineyard from being ruined by seepage from an adjacent oil well.
  • Paladin defends a schoolmistress who’s being theatened for teaching about war crimes that took place during the Civil War

The influence on me includes literature. In my early teens I read several books in the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. As an adult, I read the whole Lonesome Dove trilogy by Larry McMurtry (much of it set in the South Texas where I grew up), the blood-soaked novel The Son, also set in Texas and spanning the 1830s into the 1980s, and the outstanding non-fiction book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne.

Next up on the Western reading list: The Virginian by Owen Wister, a 1902 novel I saw at a local library book sale and tossed into my $5/bag of books. I recall the series inspired by the book being on in the 1960s, until I was in my early teens, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me of, say, The Wild, Wild West. I’ve heard the book was memorable, so I’ll dip into some 1902 entertainment.

Whatever the media, the possibilities to touch on hot-button issues are endless. I’ll find the episodes that jump out at me and take a look. My goal is to view them from two directions at once: as I saw them as a kid, and what messages I can tease out 50 years later as an adult.