In the 1950s and early 60s there was an explosion of TV western series, many of which we can all remember now, although the heyday of the TV western was largely over by 1962.
This post is a gentle exploration of what came and went and what led to the demise of a formula that entertained us from the beginning of movies but which positively. Dominated the early TV days of the 50s.
Holster your twin colt 45s, saddle up your pinto pony and prepare to ride off into the past………..
The Western tale predated celluloid by some considerable years, being one of the original forms of pulp fiction, with Western dime novels being the equivalent of the Victorian London-centric penny dreadfuls of the mid to late 1800s.
The ingredients were common; set from around 1860 onwards, often involving a maverick gunslinger or cowboy as the central figure, sometimes a cavalry soldier, all armed with revolvers and rifles.
It was common for the backdrop to be arid desert, or desolate scenes backed by towering monolithic rock formations or snow capped mountain trails. The harshness of th environment formed part of the storyline and the described atmosphere.
This was carried on into the movies that began appearing at the turn of the century.
There were only a few common plot lines which included construction of railroad or telegraph lines, the disputes between ranchers and farmers, revenge or grudge plots, the subjugation of the Indian (native Americans) nations, outlaws and train robbers, gunslingers, lawmen and bounty hunters.
It is generally acknowledged as the most popular form of film and TV entertainment unrivalled between the 130’s and early 1960s.
Many modern SciFi creations owe their plot lines to the early Western genre including the original 1960s series of Star Trek which has often been described as a Western in Space.
This was followed in the 50s with a plethora of western movies such as Broken Arrow, high, Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo and Shane.
But also coming of age in the 1950s was television and the subject of this post, the TW Western.
Staring on radio in 1933 the masked Texas Ranger (alter Ego Ranger Joh Reid) with sidekick Tonto and faithful horse Trigger eventually hit TV screens in 1949 running until 1957 over 221 seasons.
The ranger was played by Clayton Moore, most remembered for the part, though he was actually replaced for two of those 5 seasons.
The Lone Ranger was really the last of a number of Western productions written mostly for a young audience.
From the mid 50s the action heats up and the TV Western Exeter’s its heyday…..
The Mid Fifties
This was the decade that saw Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, maverick, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Lawman, The Rifleman, Laramie, Wanted Dead or Alive, Bronco.
In 1959 no shows were cancelled and 14 new ones appeared in one week alone, hence the amazing 30 show on prime time in that year.
It is estimated that some $125million would be spent on TV Western merchandise toys in 1959 alone.
Longer shows, fifty minutes to an hour, better production techniques and the advent of colour TV saw slightly more sophisticated shows take the air such as The Virginian, The Big Valley, and The High Chapparal all of which largely followed the Bonanza, dynastic ranch family formula but this was towards the end of the TV golden years.
There would be a brief dalliance in the mid 60s with quite different twists in the production type, but by 1962 those golden years of the TV Western were largely coming towards their end.
Its worth noting before leaving this section that some of these shows had incredibly long runs with Gunsmoke running for two decades, Bonanza, 14 years and the Virginian and wagon Train each running for 9 years. The series that gave Clint Eastwood his break into acting, Rawhide, ran for 8 years.
The 60s and 70s
Alias Smith and Jones, was a well produced comedy western, inspired by the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid story which ran from 1971 to 1973.
The Wild Wild West, had a SciFi twist to it which today would probably be described as steampunk and was about two US secret service agents equipped with all manner of James Bon type gadgetry and technology ate at the time of the US Civil war.
Kung Fu was quite different and introduced Eastern martial arts to TV for the first time against a Western backdrop.
Roddenberry himself described Star Trek as a Western Opera, set in space. Many have commented on the same influence to be seen in films like the Star Wars saga and Bladerunner, little wonder given that all the creators of these productions grew up when the Western was King on television.
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