Archive for March 14th, 2018

by Benjamin Hufbauer

Note:  Professor Hufbauer’s essay was originally published in The Artifice in July of 2017.


The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were the golden age of Western movies and television shows in the United States. In 1960, for instance, there were more than half a dozen major Hollywood Westerns released in theaters, including The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner (who later did an ominous parody of this role in 1973’s Westworld, which today, remade, has become a major hit for HBO), The Alamo, directed by and starring John Wayne, Flaming Star, starring Elvis Presley, and The Unforgiven, starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. There were also more than a dozen Westerns on television in 1960, including GunsmokeWagon TrainHave Gun-Will TravelMaverickRawhide, and Bonanza.

Why were there so many Westerns in this era? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for decades, almost since I first started watching TV in the very late 1960s as a little California kid who was bewildered by the endless Westerns—and I almost always changed the channel when one came on. For many years I avoided Westerns, in part because they seemed politically right wing, and instead watched shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. But over time I slowly realized that some Westerns are more complex than my youthful impressions led me to believe, and I’ve come to agree with George Lucas, who, influenced by Joseph Campbell, called Westerns an “American fairy tale, telling us about our values” 1.

TV Guide cover for May 4, 1963, featuring James Drury, Roberta Shore, and Lee J. Cobb of The Virginian.

The Virginian, broadcast on NBC from 1962 to 1971, was in many ways the peak of the classic television Western—and was the most politically sophisticated. CBS’s huge hit Gunsmoke, which premiered in 1955, inspired a deluge of TV Westerns in the following years. But Gunsmoke—like several other Westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960swas a low-budget, 30-minute, black-and-white show. In contrast, NBC promised in a press release at the launch of the The Virginian that it would be “the most ambitious and costly programming enterprise in network television history—one that will present television features with motion picture dimensions each week,” which would be “achieved not only by the ninety-minute length—which allows for full character development and expanded story-telling opportunities—but by color photography, location shooting, outstanding scripts and original musical scores” 2. And The Virginian came close to living up to this hype during its nine year-run of 249 episodes, each of which is like a little Western movie with continuing characters. (more…)

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