Retro Future: Reviving ‘Have Gun — Will Travel’ and ‘The Rifleman’

“Everyone should like Westerns — solve everybody’s problems if they liked Westerns”

–- J.R. (Harvey Keitel) in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

One of the best classic TV YouTube mash-ups out there was (the original link is long gone) a Sam Peckinpah “director’s cut” of the opening to the Peckinpah-created series The Rifleman (ABC, 1958-1963). The original unaltered opening is already awesome in its simplicity: bad-ass rifleman Lucas McCain takes aim down the street and blasts a bunch of shots from his rifle, stops, spins the rifle in a cool Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead 2 kinda way, then casually reloads with a cock-sure, cool-as-all-hell, lock-up-your-daughters glance at the screen, announcing all kinds of upcoming violence, while also presumably instilling a sense of irresolvable masculine inferiority into any number of up-past-their-bedtime 12-year-old boys watching slack-jawed in their hand-me-down mail-order Davy Crockett coonskin caps and Howdy Doody jim jams.

The “Peckinpah cut” really takes the intro to its logical conclusion. What the hell was down that street, anyway? Considering that Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) played a big part in drawing attention to the kind of bloody violence that actually takes place on the wrong end of the boomstick, combining the two sources is a simple but also fairly deft piece of auteurist revisionism:

It also nicely questions that element of clean weapon fetishisation that so many ’50s Westerns thrived on, undermining the raw, empty spectacle of gun-based power-displays with a suggestion of (ludicrously extreme) consequence. The Rifleman was far from a violent blood-fest and was really a very human, emotional series, sometimes quaint, sometimes sappy, but it’s telling that, in its intro sequence, we get a long hard look at The Rifle doing its rifle thing before we actually get a glimpse of the suffixed man who’s carrying it. The parody in Mad #54 (March 1960, reprinted in Three Ring Mad) “The Rifle, Man!” (a perfect title) also takes some great shots at the joyous promise of violence, with Lucas piling up bodies everywhere he goes, including mowing down the film crew behind the cameras: “Just practicin’, Son! Being a gentle, peace-lovin man like myself takes a lot of shootin’ practice, le’me tell yuh!”.

While shooting was a big part of a number of Western openings – Gunsmoke (until concerns about TV violence meant that the shootout opening had to be replaced), Shotgun Slade (Boom. BOOM!), The Lone Ranger (aren’t those silver bullets supposed to be a reminder not to randomly blast away?), to name a few – Have Gun – Will Travel (CBS, 1957-1963), competing with The Rifleman, had a much more ominous aura of looming violence about it, rather than the simple raw display of gunpowder power.

Have Gun – Will Travel‘s opening (in its early seasons, anyway) features Paladin (Richard Boone, his face off-screen) drawing his gun and pointing at the camera/audience as his voice recites a key line of dialogue from the coming story (usually with an implied ethical demand). The gun lingers for a moment before it is reholstered, with no shot fired. Where The Rifleman emphasises the empty (targetless) spectacle of the rifle being fired, Have Gun – Will Travel emphasises the manifest tension and potential for violence that comes with the drawn weapon. As Alan Vanneman writes: “Boone would inform whichever loathsome polecat he happened to be confronting of the sudden death that awaited if he didn’t mend his ways … The opening was beautiful schtick: it ensured that each episode, regardless of how cozy and peaceful the conclusion, would have the aura of violence hanging over it from the get-go”. (Alan Vanneman, ‘Got Trouble? Wire Paladin! The Western for Existentialists’, Bright Lights Film Journal Issue 48, May 2005).

Interestingly, the Steve McQueen vehicle Wanted: Dead or Alive (CBS, 1958-1961) seems to combine both of these intro elements, essentially identical to the opening of The Rifleman (the opening focus on the gimmick gun, the stern walk, the look towards camera), but with the joyous spectacle of violent discharge instead replaced by ominous glowering:

But turning away from the past for a moment (a tough ask for Retro Remote): if the reports floating about the Internet are true (aren’t they always?), both The Rifleman and Have Gun – Will Travel have been floating about lately as candidates for modern remakes.

Thanks, it seems, to the success of TV Westerns like (the as-yet unseen by Retro Remote) Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-) and (the truly excellent) Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006), and quasi-Westerns like (the surprisingly bland but enjoyable enough) Justified (FX, 2010-), Have Gun – Will Travel and The Rifleman could be headed for resurrection and/or desecration.

Hopefully this is good news. Remaking classics or fan-favourites is always a touchy subject, and for every disgusted purist there’s a fan that can’t wait for their favourite treasure to be updated for a mass audience. Somewhere in between, no doubt, there’s a lazy scriptwriter and a money-hungry studio.

If both pull through, it’ll be intriguing to see the two shows head into a showdown once again, more than 50 years after they first aired, particularly because they were two shows with such different appeals, resonances, and underlying political values – only hinted at in the comparison of intro sequences above. Despite the modern mainstream tendency to lump them all in together, Westerns were hardly monolithic in the attitudes and appeals. Seeing the two remade side by side is a great opportunity to see not just how one particular series may be updated, but also whether or not the updating process smooths out the differences that placed these two series in a light but notable values conflict.

After all, the “updating” process rarely transfers those qualities which gave the source its actual unique individuality or appeal: the superficial elements (the title, character names, the general setup) tend to be transferred while the more idiosyncratic, problematic or anachronistic elements tend to be left behind and replaced with whatever style is dominant at the time. That’s a shame: anachronism is always one of the more alluring instigators of drama.

Making the possibility of remakes even more intriguing is the suggestion that writer/director David Mamet will be behind the new HGWT (which, since we’ve been abbreviated-title-happy since 1996 or so, could no doubt be the actual series name). The fact that Mamet brings considerable reputation is a good thing and hopefully points to a certain degree of serious expectation being attached to the series (the mainstream media is, of course, much snobbier and more easily fooled by cultural credentials – however dubious – than it likes to present itself); the fact that Mamet’s later work has primarily been fuelled by his rebirth as a right-wing neo-con bodes less well. After all, the premise of Have Gun – Will Travel might not seem too different to Mamet’s previous series, the watchable but ludicrously propagandistic The Unit. Just as Paladin heads into dangerous situations to restore moral order, so do the macho, American military forces of The Unit; Paladin is comfortable and refined in his luxury hotel when he’s not working, and the he-men of The Unit similarly spend all their time being well-resourced and well-financed in happy, suburban Army-ville, USA.

It’s easy to see how someone like Mamet – known for unrealistically literate but nevertheless engaging dialogue – could be drawn to a character with Paladin’s literary sophistication and erudition (see “Tough Guys Recite: The 5 Best Poetry Spittin’ TV Characters”. However, it’s also easy to see how Mamet could view the series as a parable for the joys of militaristic America, consolidating its own wealth and power and using these resources to control, direct, and manipulate the surrounding world. The comparison works nicely, but also misrepresents (to an extent) the more distanced, abstract notion of Paladin’s ethical interventions and the “keep it simple and cut your losses” approach that Paladin usually pursues before regrettable and often dour violence inevitably breaks out. (Not to mention Paladin’s general antipathy towards the military in the series.)

The Rifleman and Have Gun – Will Travel were not so far apart in their surface-level liberalism: both preached racial and religious tolerance, the application of law, and a moral exclusion of bigotry. But there’s a demanding and aggressive tension about Have Gun – Will Travel’s brand of morality when it comess to the fore, with its black-clad hero Paladin an unyielding deliverer of Law in the potentially socially disruptive and destructive Mosaic sense, while The Rifleman‘s Lucas McCain maintained a stern “don’t rock the boat” approach. Paladin actively and aggressively applied moral demands on the scenarios he imposed himself upon; Lucas McCain expected to be left alone, and to be able to do no harm, as long as none was done to him. Paladin pursued (moral) trouble beyond his comfortable realm, while The Rifleman presented a hard-working, self-contained man, who faced trouble that always stemmed from outside this pastoral microcosm.

From a modern perspective, the summary can make it sound like Paladin is something of a right-wing fundamentalist, imposing values upon the unwilling, while Lucas McCain represents a more moderate and modest social stance. That may be true to an extent: Paladin’s interventionism, position of financial power, and intellectual status makes his violent insistence on his particular brand of morality problematic at best. Benevolently interventionalist isn’t a phrase that we can or should accept too readily.

But importantly – and unlike Mamet’s The Unit – both shows are still about the trouble inside America, not finding enemies beyond its borders. For Lucas McCain, America is fine, thank you very much. Trouble-makers stay out. Paladin, to the contrary, is an agitator. He finds out what people say they want, and then he gives it to them, whether they end up liking it or not. Paladin imposes sought-after progress while Lucas McCain resists it.

It’s easy to read the emergence of JFK-style politics into the sophisticated, firm and liberal image of the hero portrayed by Have Gun – Will Travel, but the series never presents Paladin as a smugly “easy” hero: the show’s moral struggles are just that – in order to restore order, Paladin usually has to take action that places him in a position of compromise or regret. Any number of episodes end with Paladin’s grim visage as he dejectedly re-holsters his gun, after killing some poor fool or another who was more rash, misguided or blind than truly evil. Problems in The Rifleman, however, are rarely so nuanced. While the villains may be interesting or sympathetic, there’s a simple underlying logic at work: don’t cause trouble for Lucas McCain.

For all of Have Gun – Will Travel‘s (broad) similarities with Mamet’s The Unit, The Rifleman‘s simple conservatism might have been a better fit for Mamet current neo-con bent. Still, the politics of the two shows – Have Gun – Will Travel especially – may not be so clear cut. Even if Mamet is far from his prime, Retro Remote remains hopeful for his resurrection of Paladin. In the hands of a now mostly guileless Mamet, Paladin as a militaristic, always-right, might-is-right know-it-all seems likely (the same narcissistic fate that befell the once-engaging 1970s globe-trotting “detective” version of Batman), but I guess any new version Paladin at least opens up the opportunity for comparison and criticism.

However the series end up (and let’s hope they make it), they should leave room for plenty of discussion – certainly far more than the ongoing generic and monolithic “return of the Western” platitudes the mainstream media is likely to provide.

Plus it might convince Paramount to finally release the final season of the original Have Gun – Will Travel series on DVD.

The Rifleman back on the radar also bodes well for DVD release. Unlike Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman has no complete series dvd sets whatsoever. Luckily, it looks like that’s about to change, with series sets scheduled for release in early 2013.

Incidentally, if Mamet really wanted a challenge, this might be an interesting opportunity to revive the 30 minute episodic drama. Twenty-hour arc-based narratives may be trendy with the current obsession with serialised narrative, but the skill, concision and ability to produce a compelling self-contained narrative in a mere 20-to-30 minutes seems, like the classic version of the TV cowboy, to have all but disappeared.