With attempted justifications of military torture on our minds, Retro Remote heads back to the '50s TV Western to find a surprisingly tough moral stance on the U.S. military's destruction of human dignity and dehumanisation of 'enemy combatants'.
Have Gun Will TravelDistributor: Paramount
Cast: Richard Boone, Kam Tong, Valerie French, Patric Knowles, Lou Krugman
First date: 1957
US Release Date: 2006-01-03
Season One of Have Gun - Will Travel is available to view online here at CBS.com
’Major, sooner or later, no matter what the degree of a man's guilt, it has to be washed away by something. Love. Courage. Death.' -- Paladin (Richard Boone) in Have Gun - Will Travel, 'Return to Fort Benjamin'.
Conventional wisdom paints the 1950s TV Western as a socially conservative genre, and for the most part, it's hard to argue. There's no doubt that there was plenty of TV liberalism floating about in there, but its presence could rarely said to be radical (which, incidentally, shouldn't and doesn't negate its completely admirable presence). The TV series Broken Arrow followed the source movie's lead with an uber-noble Cochise (played by Michael Ansara), but rarely touched on any seriously provocative elements.
Certainly the US military wasn't about to be villainised on mainstream screens, and we're usually left with a few individual bad apples when we're dealing with villains in uniform rather than any indictments of the institution as a whole. James Stewart in Anthony Mann's 1955 film The Man from Laramie flatly declares the U.S. Cavalry incapable of firing first, and that seems to be about the end of it. Individuals may transgress, but the institution remains pure.
Memorable 1965 TV series Branded takes on a weirdly conflicting status in this light. Branded is the story of a soldier (Chuck Connors as Jason McCord) wrongly branded a coward. He’s kicked out of the military, and facing the hatred and abuse of his country creates a strong image of the defiant outsider, wearing his name and status with pride despite being disowned by his country and its military.
But not long into the series we're given the real reasoning behind this: McCord takes on this status as a means of covering for his General's failure and a fault that would overall tarnish the name of the military. Suddenly McCord goes from being a defiant outsider to a willing scapegoat, nobly sacrificing himself for the overall good of the military.
It's a neat example of the mentality expressed in John Ford's 1948 Fort Apache (a great film, whatever its final implications), or the closing idea of his 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a widely-admired false image remains more important than a disruptive truth (an idea taken up with a complete lack of insight, intelligence, or basic narrative logic at the end of the faux-philosophical The Dark Knight).
Richard Boone's Paladin in Have Gun - Will Travel was an altogether different hero, aggressive in his moral stance rather than consoling and deflective -- his talk often contained the standard TV 'let's all get along' liberalism, but, more often than not, that wouldn't wash and he'd make it work with lead, dispensing moral justice with deadly results. Tough-minded and assertive, the show clearly didn't feel the need to pull its punches when it came time for Paladin to butt heads with the US military.
Starting with its memorable gimmick of Paladin (his face unseen) drawing his gun, pointing it at the screen, and giving some threatening speech from the episode to come, we're delivered a solid dose of righteous disgust before we've even really begun:
A father asked that his son's body have whatever honor is left to it. I've seen him hounded to death with less dignity than cattle in a slaughter pen.
The episode starts with a minimum of fuss, director Andrew V. McGlaglen and star Richard Boone bringing their usual firm but understated intensity to the fore straight away. Paladin, stepping into his hotel's lobby, is called over to speak to two men. He shows no strong reaction when he sees them, but it's a testimony to Boone's power on screen that Paladin is noticeably more guarded and distant than his usual demeanor. Perhaps he has some reason to be: the men are Sioux Chief Dark Leaf (in traditional dress, or what is supposed to be, at any rate) and his nephew (in a well-tailored suit).
Have Gun - Will Travel rarely used Native Americans as token villains, and Paladin really was about as culturally sensitive as a Western hero can be, so it's no surprise that Paladin doesn't do a double-take and shout for security. It is, however, a nice touch that there's no over-played friendship, peace-pipe smoking or group hugs. Rather than rely on token and flimsy signs of everyone getting along swimmingly, Paladin's cool and wary response reminds us that we're still in an edgy time of US history, and this tone grounds the show firmly in the adult realm.
We learn that Chief Dark Leaf's son, Yellow Star, is to be hanged for murder and they believe that Paladin may have connections with important people in the military. The Chief's nephew holds out Paladin's card which advertises his services: 'or doesn't it include us?' he asks.
'Well, what do you want with me?' Paladin replies, still guarded, the show confident enough in its history to feel no need to defend its hero from implied racism.
The request is a simple one: Chief Dark Leaf wants his son's body to be burned on a Sioux pyre. The implication of racism, understated before, is now given its full force:
'And the authorities have refused this right?'
'Mr Paladin, we are Indians. At Fort Benjamin, we don't have rights.'
Bernard Hermann's score ('The Hitchhiker' bars 1-3, according to Bill Wrobel's excellent essay, “Hermann music in Have Gun Will Travel and Other Classic CBS TV Series”, Bernard Herrmann.org, June 2006) is ominous as Paladin approaches Fort Benjamin, its front wall blacked out with heavy shadow. It’s a simple but incredibly effective directorial touch, especially during outdoor filming (incidentally, don't ask me why it's 'return' to Fort Benjamin, since he doesn't seem to have dropped by before). The inside is bleak and sparse, and we see Yellow Star in the distance, being driven through some mock military routine by a soldier before he is struck with a rifle butt and collapses.
The soldier is eventually ordered to take the prisoner away after Paladin steps in to stop the beating (not afraid to throw his weight and understanding of regulations around), but the offhand and once again understated dismissal makes it clear that this is no isolated incident or soldier: 'Take him away Kern, and do be a little easier with him'. The lieutenant (Charles Aidman) dismissively refers to Yellow Star as 'the gimp'.
After an ad break, we find Paladin facing Major Blake (Robert J. Wilke), a noose dangling in the background between them, and we return to Paladin's attempt to obtain traditional death rites for the prisoner, and its broader implications of ethical treatment for even our most despicable prisoners. It's one of the series' typically forceful and well-written pieces of dialogue that still resonates with strength and ethical determination:
Major, sooner or later, no matter what the degree of a man's guilt, it has to be washed away by something. Love. Courage. Death. Now, I've come to you with what seemed to me to be a humane, uncomplicated request: that the body of Yellow Star be afforded whatever honor remains for it.
Finding no result, Paladin's emotion finally gets the better of him and he storms off; McLaglen's direction remains subtle but clear as the noose that previously swayed between them is now replaced by the background image of Yellow Star being taken from his cell. It's a simple arrangement of images, but the careful timing of the unbroken panning camera shot and interrelation between foreground and background space feels practically revelatory in the realm of ‘50s TV Westerns, or even most TV today where we're not really expected to be paying too much attention to the broader space as we are listening to dialogue triggers and waiting for close-ups to define the important bits and pieces.
A similar background-foreground moment also takes place when Paladin sees Yellow Star for the first time, and this technique of accentuating distance (Paladin has barely been in the same space as Yellow Star) heightens the effect of Paladin arguing for a broader, more abstract notion of honor and respect rather than simply being involved with any single character or storyline.
Paladin's stoic reserve emerges again when the Major attempts some justification by explaining his own torture by the Sioux, holding up his twisted claw-like hand, burned on a Sioux pyre; Boone is again restrained, merely closing his eyes in a show of understanding and recognition as the Major describes his torture (of course, we understand that Paladin has seen plenty of this kind of horror; a little later, in a strong piece of writing, he describes the expression of a man who's been scalped: 'it's sad, and a little bit sleepy').
And let's not forget that the ethical treatment of prisoners is perhaps a more vital issue now than it ever was, as is the idea that these prisoners may be classed as sub-human by those who contain them. It's not much of a stretch to start thinking of Guantanamo Bay and torture euphemisms like 'waterboarding'. In fact, in Australia, the father of Guantanamo inmate David Hicks more or less enacted this same story -- pleading not for a verdict of innocence but only for fundamental human rights for his son (the effort of Hicks' military appointed lawyer, Major Michael Mori, makes an extraordinary story about ethics and the military in itself). It wouldn't take much to remake this story as 'Return to Guantanamo Bay'.
At this point, the trajectory of ‘Return to Fort Benjamin’ is slightly derailed when Paladin discovers that Yellow Star is innocent -- a fact that, until this point, has been completely irrelevant. Paladin has been fighting for the rights of a guilty man, not trying to defend an innocent one.
But Yellow Star's desire for death rather than life as a 'gimp Indian', finding some last shred of defiance in taking credit for a murder he was too broken-down, 'demoralized and deluded' to be capable of committing, carries its own indictment of the culture that would use him as a convenient scapegoat and rob him of his dignity even before the murder took place.
Ultimately, we're left with the fort as an overall place of corruption, bitter and willfully blind at all levels, and no hint of a higher more reasonable military authority to sort things out (Major Blake blocks all Paladin's objections with off-hand military authority, and specifically tells him he'll have to find a civilian telegraph if he wants to apply for a formal review of the case).
Although it can be argued that the fort is not intended to be some broader stand-in for the military as a whole (it is described as a bit of a dead-end post), we're not given any real reason to see Fort Benjamin as being an exception; when Sgt. Kern gets a villainous moment towards the end of the episode, he's in medium shot, his face on one side of the screen, the American flag flapping in the wind taking up the other while the score drones ominously.
Yellow Star's innocence may make ‘Return to Fort Benjamin’ less purely ethically driven than some of the other confronting episodes where Paladin's central ethical demand takes center stage, but it still carries a dominant and potentially difficult ethical demand at its core, expresses its concerns with care, weight and insight (in a script written by Robert E. Thompson), and doesn't let its narrative diversion undermine or derail its overall focus (the usual negative effect of a narrative 'twist').
Like many of the other great episodes, it also has a slow tense pace, an ominous score, and a violent and dangerous atmosphere (even when there's no actual violence taking place). McLaglen's direction contains plenty of nice understated touches that often seem a little too sophisticated and subtle for TV, such as the emphasis on foreground and background action, and the care taken in lighting the fort.
Other touches are more noticeable and, though equally simple, have a great effect in the often-static TV world, such as Sgt. Kern being killed on an overhang so that he falls into the river when he dies. (Incidentally, with so much understated antagonism, it's not unreasonable to assume that Major Blake has simply allowed Paladin to be executed by Sgt. Kern. Certainly, Paladin gets away with shooting an officer of the U.S. Army more or less unquestioned. I can't think of too many TV Western heroes getting away with that!)
And like many of the great episodes, its ending is somber and doesn't pretend that its issues can be neatly resolved. Yellow Star dies drunk and as deluded about his defiance as ever. After his death (he's shot by Paladin, and it's not uncommon for Paladin's gun to end up unavoidably aimed at sympathetic characters) an ominous (and clearly intentional) shadow takes up the bottom corner of the screen, and Paladin flings away both Yellow Star's whisky bottle and the military saber he was holding in disgust. This double-image is repeated and perhaps reversed in the final scene when Paladin burns Yellow Star's body on a Sioux pyre, laying both the Sioux sign of a chief and what seems to be a military medal on the body.
It's a final scene full of contradictions, and its unresolved feeling reaffirms the basic core of Paladin's character: strong and unyielding ethical demand in difficult and volatile circumstances. The story elements may not have been resolved, but Paladin's ethical decision was determined from the outset, and the decision carries through to the very end.
Perhaps most resonant of all is Paladin's final speech to Major Blake, a strong counterpoint to his earlier speech about guilt of all levels being ultimately washed away. As Blake hands Yellow Star's body over for the burial rituals, Paladin doesn't pretend that our own guilt can finally be washed away so easily:
'You degraded a man into something worse than an animal. Honoring his body won't change that now.'