Wanted: Dead or Alive made Steve McQueen a star. Forty years later, it’s easy to see why: he is incredibly charismatic even as he’s a little gawky, especially in the scene where he rips down a “Wanted” poster that begins each episode. He doesn’t appear especially good-looking at first glance, but McQueen shows a compelling grace and yes, cool. The series ran for four years starting in 1958. During the first season, now released to DVD, he has no regular costars, though a few notable actors appear in different roles in several episodes, including James Coburn, Michael Landon, and Edgar Buchanan. McQueen plays Josh Randall, a self-proclaimed “honorable” bounty hunter who only kills when necessary and frequently gives his hard-earned money to charity. He’s a professional gunslinger who goes from town to town to get rid of the bad guys.
Randall tends to embody U.S. “values” during the Cold War, when America played cop to the world. In his role as a bounty hunter he symbolizes the dual aspects of individual freedom and communal responsibility. Randall has no jurisdictional boundaries or family ties. He’s continually on the road and never stays in one place for very long. At the same time, Randall believes in civic virtues. He is not a vigilante, but a bounty hunter. Randall respects local law enforcement officers and city officials. The fact that Randall uses extralegal means only underlines the extreme menace of his prey.
The series’ anti-Communist subtext is especially clear in the episode, “The Conquerors.” The narrative exposes the cynicism of Soviet propaganda, as it concerns an innocent young man (whose father pays Randall for his return), fallen under the sway of a corrupt former Confederate officer. The general has recruited an army of idealistic youth to help free Mexican peasants. He uses phrases like “liberating the people” to con his gullible minions into killing women and children, and plundering Mexican gold and silver for the officer’s personal benefit.
At the same time, some episodes raise questions concerning the morality of bounty hunting. “A man who hunts other men for a living is no better than those he hunts,” sneers one man, angry that Randall is tracking his only son. Randall resents the accusation but visibly feels its sting. Other plots pit Randall against villainous bounty hunters, who kill indiscriminately or hunt down “good” men for money instead of “justice.” This way, you can be assured that his rationales are relatively sound. The DVD does contain three featurettes that address the question of Randall’s character — “The Bounty Hunter,” “Angel or Devil,” and “Dead End” — that mostly offer still photographs from the episodes with a voice over commentary that raises leading questions regarding Randall’s ethics. The narrator’s authoritative voice strongly indicates that Randall is a good man, even if the speaker states it in the form of a question.
As Randall is a loner, he interacts with three types of women: unavailable, independent, or bad. Occasionally patronizing, Randall isn’t afraid to hit a girl or pull a gun on one if it’s necessary. Indeed, he treats everyone equally, from women to Native Americans to Mexicans, though he doesn’t quite believe in integration. In “Bounty For a Bride,” he’s hired to find a white woman kidnapped by Indians when she was a child, and return her to birth father. Adopted by the chief who took her, she’s not inclined to go back, but Randall convinces her to come home “where she belongs” by pointing out her white skin.
“Rope Law” has a conventional anti-lynching plot, with the additional complication of a father-son conflict (not to mention pop-Freudian themes). A young man protects his father by igniting the townspeople to lynch another man accused of murdering his stepdaughter, though he knows his father committed the crime, because she spurned his affections in favor of his son’s. It’s a nasty business, and of course, Randall sorts it out.
Randall’s morality is linked to his masculinity repeatedly. His sawed off Winchester rifle, which he calls his “mare’s leg,” fires bullets so large that in the real world, they would explode in the chamber. Though his weapon only has two chambers, he shoots multiple rounds and rarely reloads. But those who focus on the “unrealistic” weaponry miss the point. The gun is a metaphor, part of his mythology, and related to McQueen’s own quietly macho allure. But while many observers have tried to pin down the source of this appeal (including interviewees in “Life in The Fast Lane,” an A&E Biography, split into six short parts for the DVD), Wanted: Dead or Alive), it remains elusive. This first season of Wanted: Dead or Alive provides an early glimpse into the legend he would become.