|John Candy in "Wagons East!"|
Hollywood re-shaped Greene's image for "Bonanza." He and his three sons on the series became beloved all across the land. It was the days of the "Big 3" TV networks. Any popular show would be known to everyone. It really put the actors/actresses in a fishbowl for celebrity treatment. Today you can be a minor celebrity by being involved in a pawn shop!
TV westerns were indeed big in the 1960s, my formative time in life. We see the later half of the 19th Century portrayed as Hollywood imagined it in the American Old West, western Canada and Mexico. Here's a question: what if America had been settled (by Europeans) starting in the West, and the movement was east? Would TV have shown "easterns" instead of "westerns?" John Candy's last movie was "Wagons East," an amusing premise for a movie although it was a failure.
The stereotyped western cowboy a la John Wayne is overdone. The stereotype was built up for entertainment purposes. The development of the USA West was really a grudging, tedious and dangerous proposition for all, as we saw the evolution of the "territories" into states. Minnesota completed this in 1858. Remember the territorial judge in the Clint Eastwood movie "Hang 'Em High?" He said "until we become a state and there is a court of appeals, I'm the law."
Conflict with the indigenous people - the "Indians" - was inevitable and was bound to be unpleasant. We had an outright war in Minnesota at the same time as the Civil War.
Westerns on television had their apex in 1959. The prime time shows numbered 29. That's a lot of opportunities to hear someone say "all right, draw!" Back around 1970 there was an outright purge of such shows, orchestrated by network leaders, who decided it was time to "de-ruralize." Shows like Andy Griffith and "Petticoat Junction" were phased out in order to go urban with the Norman Lear type shows.
Today the old rural stuff can still be appreciated on obscure cable TV channels like "Inspiration." Oh, "The Big Valley" with Barbara Stanwyck! Such fare can be entertaining even today. But it could never pass for first-rate, top tier TV anymore because the overall tone is too ponderous. The shows need time developing the plots. Many of the plots seem banal today.
A genre to teach us lessons
In the background of all the TV westerns was morality. I suppose we'd call it the Judeo Christian ethic. Some of those shows can grate on you, by how they hit you over the head with who "the bad guys" are. There was a series called "Lawman" starring John Russell. Indeed, the morality had an element of respecting duly designated authority (e.g. the sheriff).
Respecting authority became a complicated thing during the 1960s, as our duly elected national leaders led us through the moral abomination of the Vietnam war. Kids got the message that they should not hesitate being non-conformists. TV westerns seemed to become trite and irrelevant in this climate. There may have been overall burnout from the format.
I fondly remember "The Virginian" TV series. It was significant partly because of its 90-minute length. James Drury played the title character but he got upstaged by Doug McClure who played "Trampas." I suspect Drury was happy to keep riding the gravy train of that show which had its run from 1962 to 1971. That perfectly spanned my childhood years. I graduated from high school in 1973. The show ran on NBC which was the only network we got for a while.
Drury plays the tough foreman of the Shiloh Ranch. "Trampas" is his top hand. The series was set in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The ranch was named for the Civil War battle. Season 9 brought a name change for the show, to "The Men From Shiloh." The opening theme song was replaced. (Old fans will always be able to hum the original theme which sounded like it was played on French horn.)
My own musical tip of the hat
I have written a song in recognition of the old cowboys, even though such souls may reflect an exaggerated myth. Surely there were some men in the Old West like this. My song has a verse-climb-chorus construction. The part about the "sword pushed in the ground" is out of Stevens County History. Some children at play really did find this near the remnants of the Wadsworth Trail.
I'm happy to share the lyrics here, to my "Cowboys Did Define Us." It fits a melody I originally wrote for a song about Rocky Colavito the baseball player. Thanks for reading.
"Cowboys Did Define Us"
by Brian Williams
The Civil War was done
Graycoats on the run
Now our nation sought its destiny
Men would find their path
Through the untamed land
Even though the dangers were supreme
Some were seeking gold
Others simply wanted something new
And through the prairie grass
Wagon wheels were fast
Western vistas beckoned for those crews
Hist-ry in the making
People put stakes down
Let's pay homage to the rugged souls
Cowboys did define us
As we stretched our limits
Only in America did cowboys have their place
They defied the long odds
As they did their big job
Cowboys did define us where the rattlesnakes held sway
They cussed about barbed wire
Feared the prairie fire
Forded rivers with undaunted grit
Guns were at their side
So they could survive
Hats and vests were always part of it
Out Arizona way
There's a whole new day
Yes I know the heat could leave you worn
Tombstone made its mark
With its violent spark
Still the church bells rang on Sunday morn
Trampas on the TV
Showed how it was done
And ol' Hoss was ready with his smile
A sword pushed in the ground
Was a grave kids found
Near a trail that headed to a fort
A modest resting place
Still it had God's grace
Let's remove our hats and cry no more
The women weren't all pure
Hardy though they were
Still their vision matched up with the rest
"Gunsmoke" showed us how
Everyone was bound
See Miss Kitty match up with the best
Some of them wore bonnets
Children held their hand
As they crossed the bless-ed new found land
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - email@example.com