When Times Changed, So Did TV Westerns

A special edition for our Westerns fans! INSP is pleased to welcome Henry C. Parke as our guest blogger. Mr. Parke is the creator and writer of the blog, Henry’s Western Round-Up.

By Henry C. Parke

Most traditional Westerns take place between the end of the Civil War, in 1865, and the turn of the 20th Century, in 1900; a breezy 35 year stretch. That means they’ve been making Western TV almost twice as long as the era actually ran – and movies three times as long! That speaks volumes about the fascination Americans and others find in that special time in our history.

One of the less obvious but notable truths of Western film and TV is that, though usually unintended, every show always represents two time periods – the time the story takes place, and the time in which it was actually made. The quickest way to date when a Western was made, aside from knowing the actors and their apparent ages, is the women’s hair. No matter how historically accurate a show may be in other respects, at the actresses’ insistence, the hair was almost always in a contemporary style. But there were other outside influences to what went into a show, and those differences become more and more obvious in a long-running series.

One was the attitude towards family, which of course is the cornerstone of INSP’s programming. When BONANZA appeared on TV screens in 1959, as the first color Western series in prime-time, it had an appeal that all of the previous successful Western series – GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN, RAWHIDE, et al – lacked: a family to identify with. Pa Cartwright and his three sons were considered an ideal family (although a man widowed three times might today be considered ‘suspicious’ rather than ideal). In fact, an argument could be made that when THE VIRGINIAN came along three years later, it owed as much to BONANZA as it did to Owen Wister’s novel, as it had equivalent characters for all the leads: Judge Garth was Pa, The Virginian was Adam, Steve Hill was Hoss, and Trampas was Little Joe. For that matter, in 1965, when THE BIG VALLEY appeared, while Barbara Stanwyck was a decidedly more feminine head of the Barclay clan, it’s easy to see Jarrod as Adam, Nick as Hoss, and Heath as Little Joe.

In 1967, eight years after BONANZA’s premiere, America and the world was going through some uncomfortable changes. The Vietnam War was dividing the country, the Generation Gap was becoming a chasm, and teen angst was the flavor of the decade. When BONANZA originator David Dortort set out to create a new family Western series, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, he made the Cannons as dysfunctional a family as the Cartwrights were idealized. Big John Cannon’s son Blue was a rebel without a cause to start, and he got a cause pretty quick: John was a married to Blue’s mother in the first episode, a widower by its end, and married in the next to a woman young enough to be John’s daughter! Then there was John’s irresponsible drunk of a brother, Buck, and his new son-in-law, lazy lady’s-man Manolito. Of course, all of the family’s ‘issues’ only served to reinforce the strength of family when they overcame them and worked together.

The modern world had other ways of intruding into historical shows. The DANIEL BOONE series had a reputation for stretching time – in later seasons, plots took place anywhere from just after the Revolution to nearly the Civil War – almost a century. But even that flexibility couldn’t explain how, at the end of an episode, Josh shakes Daniel’s hand and, as he walks off in the distance, a jet contrail is unmistakable in the sky. Network phones lit up for that, as they did when, on THE BIG VALLEY, when Audra wore jeans with a side zipper instead of a button front, a style that first appeared well into the 20th century. For that matter, although it’s rarely mentioned, BONANZA was set in the pre-Civil War 1850s. Every time a character fires a pistol without first cocking the hammer back, they’re using a double-action gun, which Colt didn’t invent until 1877.

Perhaps the most damaging outside effect on Western TV came in the late 1960s, when many of society’s failings were being blamed on TV violence, and fearing government regulation, networks became pro-active, imposing unworkable standards of non-action on action-oriented TV series.

Henry Darrow remembers the abrupt changes on HIGH CHAPARRAL. “There was great pressure to tone down violence, and we did. We didn’t shoot; you couldn’t point a gun. That became a little weary, because if you pulled your gun, you had to aim it at somebody. So you just took the gun out and held it across your lap, and c’mon, that’s not right!”

“We had a great fight scene. All the Indians in the world were down in the valley, they were shooting, and people were getting shot, and then (they) panned around, and there wasn’t one body – not one body!” The network was baffled. Darrow continued, “And (producer Jimmy Schmerer) said, ‘You told us we were not allowed to shoot anybody and kill them.’ And what you saw was six or eight shots of people getting shot in the shoulder, going down, getting up, somebody got shot in the leg; somebody helps him get on a horse.”

They may not have been allowed to kill cowboys or Indians, but they sure killed the Western series: BIG VALLEY bit the dust in 1969, DANIEL BOONE in 1970, and HIGH CHAPARRAL and THE VIRGINIAN in 1971. In that final season THE VIRGINIAN, in a valiant last effort, changed their title to THE MEN FROM SHILOH, jettisoned all the family elements, trying to pass for the currently popular movie version, the Spaghetti Western. It didn’t work. The last holdout, BONANZA, rode off into the sunset in 1973.

Of course, you can catch all your favorite Westerns on INSP! Click here for our Saddle Up Saturday lineup.       – INSP Staff.

Click here for an exclusive Q&A with Henry Parke!


About Henry C. Parke

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted a ‘Western-centered’ life for me,” writes Henry C. Parke. He grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where if one were to ride off into the sunset, most likely, it would be on a subway train. A graduate from the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts with a Bachelor of Arts degree in film, his credits include: Co-writer with Fred Mintz on “Speedtrap” (1977) and the original screenplay, and a solo writing credit, for “Double Cross” (1994). His work in the film industry also takes him behind the scenes as an editor. He is currently writing two Western-themed screenplays. Recently, Mr. Parke has been accepted into Western Writers of America, as the first member admitted strictly for his writing in electronic media, for his blog, “Henry’s Western Round-up.”


For the inside scoop on the Western genre, visit Henry’s Western Round-up.