Love-Drenched Gunfighters in ‘The Guns of Will Sonnett’

Simple understatement may be the preferred mode of emotional delivery for sophisticated viewers, but Retro Remote still has what is probably a higher than desirable tolerance for schmaltz. It may be a handy quality to have when it comes to a show like The Guns of Will Sonnett (1967-1969), an immutable dirge of a series that mixes a sombre search for a missing father with liberal doses of inter-generational professions of love and affection.

The great Howard Hawks only allowed his professional Western heroes to display their affection for each other indirectly, sarcastically (as he had to personally explain to Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable for the line “because I love you” in the Hawks-scripted Test Pilot), or through plain and direct displays of respect. In the beloved Rio Bravo (1959), Walter Brennan chides John Wayne for not appreciating him enough, and then immediately demands a return to ambivalence when Wayne mischievously lays a Hawksian sarcastic-but-he-really-means-it-y’know kiss on his forehead.

A little under a decade later in The Guns of Will Sonnett, Brennan (looking no older but a tad more distinguished) has no time for any of this emotional guile. Capable of being as stern a tutor in Western toughness for his young grandson as any of Hawks’ heroes, he’s nevertheless just as likely to deliver a simple profession of love in a way that no Hawksian professional ever could (or would).

Brennan plays Will Sonnett, grandfather to Jeff (Dack Rambo), and father to Jim/James who Will and Jeff spend the series searching for. In the opening episode, “Ride the Long Trail”, Brennan gets to demonstrate the show’s underlying emotional core without much hesitation when explaining why his son “lit out when he weren’t but seventeen”:

“I should have knowed better. You can keep a colt in your corral just so long, but if you don’t pat him now and then and let him know you love him, he’ll jump the fence one day and be long gone.”

Though grizzled and tough (and quick on the draw), Brennan’s Will Sonnett is a Western hero who doesn’t feel the need to start hemming and hawing when it comes to mushy stuff like “love”. Negotiating absent male affection seems to be the show’s primary concern, and Will’s overt emotional side in his “second chance” is an attempt to make up for his own failings as a father and the failings that he passed down to his own absent son.

When Jeff asks his grandfather what he’d say to James if they found him, Brennan pats the colt right away: “reckon the first thing I oughta do is thank him for giving you to me”. If Will and Jim were tough men deprived of love, Jeff is gonna get drenched in it.

Clearly it sinks in, because Jeff isn’t afraid to jump right to the big L-word (no, not that one). In “A Grave for James Sonnett”, he calmly asks, “Grandpa, if a man wants love but don’t let himself, what then?” (“Then he’s a lonely needing man,” is the reasonable enough answer.) The (mostly) missing Jim seems to have caught a whiff of it, too; it’s “love” that keeps Jim away from his family, Jeff’s told by a friend of his father in “The Favor”. Of course it is.

Love is all around, but Jeff’s upbringing is still all about toughness and austerity (“I taught you to ride and shoot and say your prayers and ‘sir’ me in front of strangers,” his grandpa reminds him). Robbed of Brennan’s grizzled exterior, he’s certainly a much sappier vision of masculine America than the ones that preceded him, though the show refuses to portray this as a weakness. Will is still there to guide him into toughness/”manhood”, instructing him to accept a fight with a one-armed man (the always enjoyable Claude Akins) by tucking his arm in his belt, then letting him take a suitable beating before stepping in with a gun to stop things when he feels that Jeff’s had enough of a beating.

Of course, the real point of the show is that such lessons in manhood can’t be given without at least a little bit of sugar to go with them. After being reminded of how much his grandpa loves him, Jeff happily points out that “the hurtin’s gone.” Will’s suitably practical in his response, but still gets right back to the love-stuff: “no it ain’t son, it’s just that love tells it to never mind.”

The “emotional patriarch” isn’t necessarily a revelation as a character, but it’s nice to see Brennan’s patriarch take a central role in the action rather than mostly acting as a familial rock for other characters to stray from and then return to, as with God-like land barons Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) of Bonanza (1959-1973) and Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) of The Big Valley (1965-1969). If Will Sonnett has access to a kind of seminal paternal wisdom, he’s not simply ruling from afar: it’s directly integrated into the action rather than being a by-product of the messianic glory that comes from being a wealthy businessman or land owner (a conservative trope that still exists today, of course).

As with (the meandering) Kung Fu (1972-1975) and (the semi-anarchic) Monkey (aka Monkey Magic, original title Saiyuki, 1978-1980), pseudo-philosophical lessons are encapsulated in quotable maxims and homilies. While the show was not unreasonably criticised for the uniformity of its story-lines (dern it, just missed him!), most of the writing effort seemed to go towards giving Brennan earthy wisdom to deliver, such as advice like: “a man can run, but he’s gotta take his shakin’ innards along with him” (“The Natural Way”). This straight-talking ethic was nicely encapsulated in Brennan’s recurring catch-phrase, one that is certainly the most (only?) enduring aspect of the show, displaying simple, unadorned confidence when Will states his intentions or describes his abilities: “No brag, just fact.”

Taking this lean towards Everyman insight further, The Guns of Will Sonnett is perhaps most notable, aside from the catchphrase, for its attempt at a poetic tone. As in, literally. The show opens with Brennan’s spoken semi-poetry to set up the story and ends with Brennan delivering a rhyming prayer (in internal monologue voice-over), summarising the episode’s conflict and reminding us of the overall purpose of the series.

As noted above, my tolerance for schmaltz may obliterate my credibility, but I actually find the mix of attempted emotional transparency and pretension somewhat charming, especially amid the endless production line of cool, smug and emotionally detached heroes (really just a hipster gloss on the old Gary Cooper model?). Of course, Brennan and his legendary voice already had some experience with spoken-word homilies, recording a bunch of tear-jerkers and even having a bit of a hit with “Old Rivers” in 1962. Heck, I like them too.

Pretentious or not, an emphasis on introspection (as opposed to brooding self-pity) is always rare and welcome in a hero, especially when it isn’t seen as a hinderance to purpose and ability. In a sense, Will’s poems remain appropriate even if their quality may make audiences roll their eyes; after all, these aren’t supposed to be the polished verses of a scholar but of a rough, canny, god-fearin’ old mule (which is a convenient excuse for those of us who just enjoy them shamelessly…).

Though Will only lapses into poetry at the close of the show, this sense of poetic introspection is nevertheless supported by his general character throughout the series – the poetry in his head isn’t simply presented as a cheap contrast to his battered exterior. As well as being one of the most confidently emotional of Western heroes, Will is also one of the most happy to talk or, at least, to recognise the benefits of simple discussion.

Unlike the infuriating, near-autistic restraint of Kane in Kung Fu (1972-1975) or the eloquent ability to recite of Paladin in Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963), Will’s discussions seem drawn from the need to talk rather than simply delivering omniscient wisdom. As with the poetry that encapsulates the series, he seems to be actively using words to shape and negotiate the world around him. As such, the idea of talk itself comes up repeatedly in the opening episodes of the series. When he and Jeff are led to believe that James has been killed in “A Grave for James Sonnett”, Jeff responds to Will’s consoling words with a shout that he’s “just spoutin’ words, that’s all!”. Will’s response places the focus firmly on talk: “I reckon I am, boy. Just figured that talking might help us both a bit”.

That’s not to say that any of the verbose Sonnetts are going to let all this talk talk them out of drawing their guns (again, unlike the infuriatingly passive Kane). In “The Natural Way”, Will’s not willing to see it as a cheap cure-all for a run-down boozing sheriff: “Talk ain’t gonna help. I understand the way things are. You talking’s just gonna eat you up inside, that’s all. The same as that stuff’s been doing”.

The show’s opening episode perhaps sums up the underlying reliance on talk best of all. When Will explains about James leaving, Jeff tells him, “you don’t have to talk about it now if you don’t want to”. Brennan’s delivery of Will’s response underplays its importance nicely: “I don’t want to, but I have to”.

Will also notes Jeff’s own mental negotiations after the above exchange (“don’t you think I know what’s going on in that head of yours”) alluding to Will’s own inner monologue and the show’s underlying theme is also essentially “talk”-based, with Will and Jeff trying to discover the real James Sonnett beneath the constant chatter they hear about him (“the legends folks tell may be true”, as the opening says): the first scene of the series features a travelling showman/salesman spinning false tales of taking a gun from the infamous Jim Sonnett. For all the talk about talk, it’s not all sober discussion, and most of the time Brennan does get to hint at the less-wistful coot that he’s perhaps best known for; there’s nothing particularly magisterial in Brennan negotiating his hotel room – with “extry for the bath?” (they’ll wait til they get to the creek) – in “Ride the Long Trail”. And, of course, talk also informs the show’s famous catch-phrase, a reminder that Will’s talk is always straight and sincere: “no brag, just fact”.

In case that all sounds like a gabby sob-fest, it’s worth mentioning that The Guns of Will Sonnett still has all the usual Western trappings. The emotional core might be far less notable if Will and Jeff weren’t more than ready to gun folks down when they had to (including a smarmy Charles Grodin in “A Bell for Jeff Sonnett”, 15 Sep 1967). The Guns of Will Sonnett was even caught up in some ABC episode “juggling” due to violence after the assassination of Robert Kennedy drew the usual eyes to TV violence as a cause of real world violence (the National Association for Better Broadcasting called The Guns of Will Sonnett “a shoddy Western that is highly objectionable for children”). I haven’t tracked down which episodes were “juggled” yet, but based on the usual reactionary nature of these kinds of organisations, it’s unlikely that the episodes present any particularly notable violence.

Just as notably, this mix of poetry and violence does mean that Brennan’s Will Sonnett might one day carve himself a place in both of the esteemed (not really), annual (probably not) and profound (well… maybe) Retro Remote top 5 rankings of tough guys who recite poetry and old folks who could kick your ass.

There are a few other reasons to remember The Guns of Will Sonnett, too. Retro Remote had actually planned to write about a couple of later (somewhat surprising) episodes of the series along with some actual narrative analysis (and some comments on the current trendy TV theory topic of “complex television”), but got so caught up counting the times that gunfighters talked about “love” while re-watching the first handful of episodes that those other episodes will just have to wait for another instalment.

It’s always tempting to read signs of specific generational transitions in the series’ representations of manhood and the shift from hard-bitten cowboys to tender emotional shepherds with the souls of poets (plus guns). But though it’s easily done, it’s usually incorrect to see these issues as being so specifically tied to any particular era. More likely, these tensions between sternness and nurture are never fully resolved in any era or culture. As far as TV culture of the era goes, one of the defining traits of The Rifleman (1958-1963) was tough-guy Lucas McCain’s (Chuck Connors) overt and demonstrated love for his son (Johnny Crawford), while one of my favourite scenes in Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) (an underrated series) sees the Beaver and his father awkwardly negotiate an appropriate level of affection, Ward offering a handshake and Beav offering a kiss on the cheek (a scene I’ve touched on previously here).

Most likely, issues of masculine affection (inter-generational or otherwise) are still as varied now as they were at any time. (There are, incidentally, no Sonnett women to be seen anywhere; Jeff does get to get a bit knuckleheaded over a gal in “First Love”, but that ain’t the kind of love the series is really concerned with…)

The Guns of Will Sonnett trailed off after two seasons and may be too quaint in its simple desire to emote to have an enduring legacy. But there’s something to be said for a Western gunman who feels compelled to talk, answers to “gran’pa”, and can drop “love” into a conversation about as quickly and easily as he can draw his six-gun.