I have always liked Westerns, and can claim my preference by birthright. I grew up in West Texas in the 1950s, a “flatlander” living in Lubbock, the biggest city on the Llano Estacado, once a dry, vast sea of grass unmarked by hill or tree that befuddled Conquistador Francisco Coronado, Buffalo Soldiers, and perhaps even the Comanches. It was easy to see Westerns in the 1950s as the genre was immensely popular in Technicolor movies but also on black-and-white television. In the 1956 film made from the famous novel, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the protagonist’s children, two girls and a boy, are shown sitting a foot in front the black and white TV screen, soaking up the noisy chaos of cowboys in chase, shooting off guns. They ignore their father returning home from work. In my case, my father was right there watching with me, at least on Saturday nights, when my father’s favorite TV Western, Gunsmoke, was originally scheduled on CBS. We usually also watched Have Gun—Will Travel, a 30-minute Western that preceded Gunsmoke, and which I found more intriguing, though now I realize most of it went over my head. These were two of the most popular entries in a prime-time “craze” for the genre that surged in the late 1950s. Westerns regularly held up to six of the top ten coveted slots of most-watched primetime series. Gunsmoke was regularly at the top of this list, with Have Gun—Will Travel not far behind.
Both Gunsmoke and Have Gun—Will Travel were not action-saturated “oaters” but “adult Westerns,” with the latter regarded as “the most adult of the adult Westerns.”¹ The “adult” moniker signaled changes that distinguished these TV programs as more realistic and psychologically complex, but their appeal became deeply controversial because of their violent content and the fact that they were watched by a generation of children who missed out on the heyday of movie B-Westerns in the 1930s and 1940s. The popularity of many TV westerns among juveniles inspired tremendous sales in show related toy guns, games, play sets, comic books, costumes, action figures, and in the case of Have Gun—Will Travel—copies of the hero’s famous card featuring a chess knight and “HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. WIRE PALADIN. SAN FRANCISCO.”
Have Gun—Will Travel defined itself by its difference, with co-creator Sam Role supposedly worrying about its reception: “Who’s going to buy this radical?”² The hero of the series, “Paladin” (Richard Boone³) was dandy, or as one commentator called him, a “fancy cowboy.”⁴ Have Gun—Will Travel revivified the figure of the dandy through a powerful culture referent—the playboy image promulgated by Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine. To finance his lavish lifestyle in post-Civil War San Francisco, Paladin hires himself out as a man with a gun to potential clients who contact him or that he locates from newspaper accounts of trouble in the hinterlands that require resolution. Aligned with the city and civilization, erudition and pleasure-seeking, Paladin’s invincible fast draw and intimidating presence (dressed in all black) while on the job bestow upon him the masculine superiority so necessary to constructing the gunfighter as a mythic figure of the West mediating between savagery and civilization.
The “fastidious Mr. Paladin” as one character calls him, may tone down his appearance of dandyism on the frontier, but he always brings a dandy’s refinement to questions about the proper form of justice and protocol, especially in preserving the rights of accused lawbreakers threatened by mob lynching, kangaroo courts, vigilante committees, or retribution-seeking relatives of victims. Paladin first tries to use his intellectual skills and social finesse, (his city manners) as he works to solve problems and promote a more refined mode of justice based on principles and formal procedures, but ritual combat between men is inevitably attached to his presence as a man with a gun. The genre demands it.
Although his views on justice not are not shared by most of the people he meets across the West, Paladin advocates the principle that a man has no duty to retreat or flee from a threatening adversary. “Gunfighter’s pride” is what one man calls it in the 1961 episode “Everyman,” but this stance was, historically, the right of all Americans to violent self-defense and was enshrined in centuries-old judicial precedent not beholden to English law. It stands as a central trope of U.S. Westerns as mythic tales of American origin, so Paladin can just ride away after killing in self-defense. Only once do we see him arraigned or asked to account before a judge or jury for his violence (in the episode “Deliver the Body”). The final shots of most of the series’ 225 episodes show Paladin, mounted on his horse in open country, pausing before he crosses a stream and heads across a mountain-rimmed prairie. This shot offers the closure of a ritual cleansing. The series’ theme song kicks in: “Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man. A Knight without honor in a savage land.”
Although constrained by the forces of television censorship and network timidity, Have Gun—Will Travel managed to address important social problems that co-creator Sam Rolfe regarded as American “moral failings,” such as social prejudice. The series mixed sardonic humor with an existential, revisionist view of the American frontier to offer a model for how great programming could be constructed beyond those venues (like anthology series) usually associated with “quality” television.
After becoming a widely acknowledged cultural touchstone, Have Gun—Will Travel ended its six-year original run in May of 1963. Newspaper columnist Jack Smith declared himself “a Paladin man” who watched the program with his sons. He noted of these “weekly Paladin sermons”: “Someday sociologists may note that a whole generation of American boys grew up on Saturday night doses of Paladin for better or for worse.”⁵
Have Gun—Will Travel constituted a popular culture phenomenon long off the public radar, but it is one that resonates deeply and disturbingly with our current situation in the United States as a country plagued by gun violence and still struggling with social intolerance. Paladin was a contradictory figure, a dandy and liberal elitist whose efforts to mitigate bad behavior on the frontier by force of reason usually fail. Gun violence becomes the solution to restoring “peace” and “order.” Richard Slotkin has argued: “the most potent recurring hero-figures in our mythologies are men in whom contradictory identities find expression.”⁶ Paladin confirms the mythically resonant power of righteously-minded but deeply contradictory men—over an American imagination inescapably linked to violence.
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¹ John Sharnik, “Cowpokes on the Couch,” Home and Garden, Sept. 1957:32-33.
² Rolfe quoted in Lee Edson, “TV’s Rebellious Cowboy,” Saturday Evening Post, Aug. 6, 1960: 82.
³ Boone had previously starred in the television show, Medic, 1954-1956, where he played a doctor.
⁴ Richard Schickel, “TV’s Angry Gun,” Show, Nov. 1961: 51.
⁵ Jack Smith, “Hero Today and Gone Tomorrow.” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1963: D1.
⁶ Richard Slotkin, quoted in Robert V. Vine and John Mack Faragher, Frontiers: A Short History of the American West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.