by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
James Arness, played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on the longest running series in
television history, “Gunsmoke.”
One of the perks of having my mother-in-law staying with us for the last six months or so was rooted in our mutual love of westerns.
Of course that’s not the most significant benefit (she makes some of the best from scratch deserts in the world, and equally important is just a wonderful person), but it ranks right up there.
I’m fanatical about old westerns and ‘MaDear’ and I could spend endless hours dissecting and comparing notes about actors, plots and authenticity.
Of course, I subscribe to the western cable channel, which fuels daily conversations, particularly about early television series. She’s into “Gunsmoke;” I’m into “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Maverick.”
There’s dozens of movies we find mutually enjoyable, although I sometimes ruin a good rerun when I offer some tidbits about a western hero’s political views, or how the movie strayed from true historical fact or portrayal.
Most of the ‘classic’ western series we watch are in black and white, and reflect an era that greatly influenced the American culture.
Many of my generation (and my mother in law’s) were socialized by television westerns, which, unlike today, were among the top rated shows in the 1960s and 70s.
Gunsmoke, for example, is the longest running series in television history, having been on the air for 20 years. James Arness, who starred as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, died just a couple of weeks ago.
He was the television version of John Wayne, a stern, no nonsense lawman who faced the bad guys with courage; fortitude and a sense of cowboy justice, which meant you didn’t send them to the mental institution or justify their actions with antidotes about poverty or lack of educational opportunity.
Dillon, like most television marshals and sheriffs was backed by a legal system that was quick to imprison or execute, particularly if the crime dealt with animals.
You could be hung for stealing a man’s horse, and there were plenty of western movies where ‘outlaws were strung up by vigilantes for stealing cattle. Conversely in the old west, beating your wife would only rate a weekend in jail, if that.
And shooting a wayward Negro or Indian wasn’t a crime; in fact you might get a pat on the back. Which was particularly adverse for Native Americans, because they were in every other show. Black people, for the most part were invisible.
Cowboy justice was swift and to the point—albeit hypocritical and racially tainted.
You could be shot for cheating at cards, but given on a slap on the wrist if you cut a whore (ah…sorry, prostitute). Remember the Academy Award winning western by Clint Eastwood, “Unforgiven”?)
Most wanted posters paid a bounty if you brought back the outlaw “dead or alive,” which was also the title of another of my favorite television westerns, ‘Wanted Die or Alive,’ which starred the super macho Steve McQueen, who later transferred that coolness (you would have thought he was Black) to my favorite cowboy movie, “The Magnificent Seven,” which was a western interpretation of the Japanese classic, “The Seven Samurai.”
One of the major differences between westerns and Japanese samurai flicks (they were both cut from the same cloth), was that the Japanese didn’t bring racism into the scenario (unless it involved the Chinese or European colonialists).
In the case of the American western, many of the classic movies and television shows were rooted in racism.
So along with our being socialized about honor, respect and the importance of the nuclear family, we also grew up being taught that Native Americans were savages and bloodthirsty, and that Black people were generally inarticulate, child-like and shiftless.
Fortunately, or unfortunately given your point of view, they were also invisible for the most part.
Which is a fallacy of “his-story” versus real history.
In truth, African Americans, many of them freed slaves, played a prominent role in settling the west, whether as homesteaders, explorers, cow(men)boys and even as lawmen.
The history of the Buffalo Soldiers (given that title by Native Americans for somewhat obvious reasons) is legendary. They protected citizens and fought Native Americans in the southwest.
Yes, they were part of the government’s expansionism and genocide policies, but in far more cases African Americans lived with and adopted Indian life.
A classic ‘Black western,’ “Buck and the Preacher” chronicles that dichotomy. The movie starred Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and was considered a highly controversial movie for its time.
It specifically dealt with the immigration of former slaves to ‘free’ lands in the northwest and their challenges as KKK and ex-confederate soldiers tried to stop them.
At stake were the southern way of life (as in cheap, if not free labor), and the institution of indentured servitude to replace slavery. That movie was based actual events.
Speaking of Native Americans, most of the movies and television shows I emerged myself in as a child, rewrote history to make the Native Americans the bad guys. And many Americans bought that racially tainted interpretation of history hook, line and sinker.
On rare occasions, Indians were put in a positive light on television westerns “The Rifleman” and “Half Gun, Will Travel,” but for the most part we were taught not to trust them because they were sub-human savages (in some cases below Black people) and their extermination was justified by their attacks (self-defense) on God’s chosen (White people).
Mexicans generally were treated no better. A recent Rifleman episode involved a South American, who was commonly referred to as a “pepper belly.”
Though I loved the poetry spouting Paladin (played by Richard Boone) of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” it also took me years to realize that his “valet”s’ name wasn’t really “Heyboy,” but instead represented a racial epithet. I actually didn’t get it until Heyboy was replaced by another stereotypical—albeit articulate and educated–Chinese woman whose name was “Heygirl.”
“Have Gun, Will Travel” dealt with race in a progressive way, however. I remember an episode in which Paladin (Boone) escorted and defended a Black woman who wanted to see her husband before he was to be hung.
In another episode, Paladin gained so much respect for a former slave who was accused of murdering (killing, according to the cowboy creed) some white bigots that he let the brother escape. Of course the brother ended up being killed by the posse anyway, as he tried to help Paladin. There’s a moral to that story that you can figure out.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, “Have Gun, Will Travel” was progressive for its day because one of the writers was Gene Roddenberry, who later wrote and produced the original “Star Trek” series (a space western).
Star Trek broke many racial barriers, including airing the first interracial kiss and episodes that dealt superficially with the absence of racism in the future.
The show also challenged racial stereotypes and even included an episode that dealt with the stupidity of racism.
That episode dealt with the life and death struggle between a species that was literally half black and half white. The two lead characters fought because the one who was white on the left side believed the one who was black on the left side was inferior!
As I reflect back on it, it’s a wonder I didn’t grow up to believe all the racist propaganda introduced through westerns of that era.
Obviously, many people—Black and White—who didn’t study real history or who had low self-esteem and had little to no understanding of the influence of the media, weren’t so lucky.
I now dissect westerns while still allowing them to entertain me. I do it from the context of knowing that the icon of the American western, John Wayne, was a racist and there was a definitive reason why there were no Black people in any of his movies until 1972.
I recognize the penultimate western, “The Alamo” (which Wayne starred in and produced, along with a propaganda film that supported the illegal war in Vietnam called “The Green Berets”) was a lie, and that Davy Crockett, General William Travis and Jim Bowie were racists who wanted to bring slavery to the Mexican province known as Texas.
Sitting Bull was a military genius and freedom fighter. George A. Custer was an egotist and fool whose job it was to exterminate the native people in the name of American expansionism.
When I interviewed Montel Williams a few years ago, he told me his hope was to one day script and produce a modern western that told the true life story of Bass Reeves, a Black U.S. federal marshal (just like the fictional Matt Dillon) in the time of the old west who was credited with bringing in more outlaws than any other lawmaker in 19th century history.
Williams wanted to bring a true page of American history to the big screen, hopefully educating a new generation on what really happened in the old west.
Television westerns (as well as big screen cowboy flicks) of my youth epitomized the misguided, and frequently racist, American culture. They were not all bad, particularly when they dealt solely with right and wrong, justice and the importance of our Christian faith.
Most of the television and movie westerns also dealt with such concepts as loyalty, the importance of education, and hard work.
Except for TV western series like “The Big Valley,” which starred an elitist millionaire family (it also had a subplot of infidelity including a bastard son who came back to claim his piece of the pie), “Bonanza” (another elitist family that was never in the wrong, shot first and asked questions later), most westerns were grounded in the struggles of simple people, during simple times, surviving life’s challenges.
The good guys generally wore white (with the exception of Paladin–he wore all black), which in retrospect was a symbolic reference that fueled racism in America.
But don’t forget between Paladin, Wyatt Earp, Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), Matt Dillon and the Virginian, I figure they killed about 16, 412 bad guys in five seasons, so America must have been a safe place by the turn of the century.
So enjoy the black and white westerns, but always keep in mind they are based mostly on a propagandized version of history and as such have to be dissected. And remember, while early television westerns were not always true to American history, they did reflect a history that was definitely American.