We’ve been watching some of the old fifties and sixties TV shows, and I find the era fascinating. Besides the fact that so many future great writers and actors were heavily represented in the first two decades of TV, the writing itself was often very impressive.
Our recent favorite is the first season of Have Gun – Will Travel. I remember watching it as a kid, but it may take being much closer to geezerhood (ooops, I mean “wisdom”) to appreciate some of the sophistication in the show.
First of all, the name of the show. It has a hyphen. It’s a business card. A professional gunfighter — with a business card!
Even that hyphen tells you something. A show with punctuation! Clearly, not the usual western.
And both the guy’s holster and business card have that horse head. Which has no fewer than THREE different referential worlds linked to it: the “cowboy” genre and all the things you expect from that; the “knight” genre (Paladin is a term for a knight,of course, and even the western theme song refers to him as “a knight without armor in a savage land…” — can you hear it?) So the reference there is to another world entirely — the King Arthur stuff and the morals and mystique of knights of yore (and yore itself, for that matter…)
But also, it’s a CHESS PIECE.
A chess piece suggests a thinker, and the first episode of the show demonstrates that handily. Jack Lord is the bad guy, hidden off in a Mexican spa town that is headed by, of course, a guy named O’Brien in a sombrero. Very Mexican, that. And of course, hordes of gun-totin’, rootin’-tootin’ cowboy vigalentes have tried to go out after this Jack Lord bad guy, and all have failed. He’s still there, with a woman who was either kidnapped or ran off (of course, this being the fifties, women basically were assumed to not be all that sure of what they were doing — a kidnapped woman was presumed to always be either ambivalent or at fault in her own kidnappping… sort of like a Helen of Troy, if you just swap out ancient Texas for ancient Greece. And did you notice that they sort of probably based the first episode of the show on the Iliad, then? I tell you, these fifties writers were eddycated!)
But the posses didn’t manage to get the bad guy or bring the “girl” back; in fact, they limped back across the border mangled, maimed, and decimated.
Enter Paladin. Who of course, uses his chessmaster brain more than brawn. He studies the bad guy, figures out how to play on his vanity and needs, and so instead of shooting people to get what he wants, he basically just lures the guy back to justice (and the woman back to her “old life” under her dad’s control, but hey, it was the fifties.)
Which right away shows you something about this show and its writers. It is going to be a subversive show. Smart will win over brute force and gunplay. (Still very much a subversive notion in America, I’d argue.)
For more subversion, check out the second episode. In episode 2, Charles Bronson plays the bad guy. Real bad hombre. Gunfighter. Killer. Except of course, he manages to care about his newborn son. He is a man of honor, and even sentimentality, underneath. Instead of the easy George Bush stereotype of “you’re either good or evil, either with us or agin’ us,” we have nuance.
In fact, the Bronson character only has one tragic flaw: he is a “fast gun,” which is sort of fine in itself. But he doesn’t care if he shoots other guys who are nowhere near as fast. Guys who never had a chance against him. And that is the thing Paladin says to him (and to the viewer at the opening of the show, in a “gun pointed at you so you’ll listen” teaser-quote moment.)
This critique — it’s not being a shooter, but taking advantage of guys who never had a chance against you, that makes you bad — is really interesting. Again, it totallly upends so much of the Western genre, all that stuff we take for granted about the “ethics” of all them thar gunfights. It’s another example of the show being a western that subtly takes the whole western genre apart and questions it, from the inside.
In both of these first episodes of HG-WT, the contrast is stark, between the smart, principled and interesting chessmaster Paladin, and the conventional cowboy approach, in which the lawmen or the family vigilantes are also after the bad guy, but whereas Paladin is competent and smart, they are incompetent, fat, direct and un-subtle. And mostly get themselves kilt.
You wonder what that’s supposed to be a commentary on, back in the late fifties. Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life comes to mind. McCarthyism comes to mind. The whole cold war comes to mind: the idea that security lies in brute force and nukes, in polarized views of “good versus bad, God-fearing Americans versus Commies,” and blah blah blah. These things were very live concerns of writers and non-stupid patriots back then, just as they were during the Bush years (substitute, say, Muslims for Commies), and still are (now the bad guys are “socialists” or something, and the good guys wear their guns to the church social.)
But in any time, it’s the stupid “force first” approach to righteousness in America that shows like this may critique, under cover of being popular entertainment. A deeply profound commentary on a sometimes stupid, brutal, and simplistic culture, as critiqued by a bunch of writers who clearly preferred the intelligence of chessmasters to the cudgel. Whose message was hidden but very vital, as all good writers’ messages sometimes are: your survival may depend on being thoughtful, on understanding the other person, more than on brute, stupid force.