Friday, April 22, 2011

"Have Gun, Will Travel"--Knight Without Armor in the Old West

"Have gun, will travel reads the card of a man/ A knight without armor in a savage land." --"Ballad of Paladin" (Johnny Western, Richard Boone and Sam Rolfe)

There was a time in America-from the fifties to the mid-sixties, before the cultural "youth quake" tuned to secret agent shows like "Man From UNCLE" and "The Avengers"   when network  television was chock-a-block with Westerns.   There were as many as nineteen running at one time! Many of these I saw when I was a little older in the 1970's and shows like this  ran in re-runs on local channels in the days of weekend syndication.



Many of these "oaters" or "horse operas" , like the dramatic cop procedural  shows we have today,  are not very memorable.  I don't think I'd be interested in watching episodes of  "Bonanza" or "The Big Valley", for instance  today (unless there was a trip to Maui in it for my trouble.) And the Western show I really liked as a kid, the James Bondian Western "The Wild, Wild West" was  just that: a show mostly for kids with perhaps an unusual guest character to liven up a gimmicky, stunt-driven series..    

 But one show I found held up rather well after many years was "Have Gun--Will Travel", a monochrome Western that follows the exploits of a man known to the audience only as "Paladin" or "Mr. Paladin".  Paladin (as played by the gruff but erudite-looking actor Richard Boone) was an ex-Union officer form the Civil War some ten years after that conflict ended.

 A West Point graduate and from an apparently distinguished if unnamed Boston Brahman family, Paladin made his home at the ritzy Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.  He wore what the locals might call "fancy duds" and attended both the opera and the stage. He was as comfortable reciting Shakespeare or recalling a battle strategy of some ancient Greek general or playing chess as he was on a dusty trail in the hinterlands tracking down a murderer or a bandit.    

That was how Paladin made a living: he was essentially part bounty-hunter, part private eye, and part knight on a quest in the framework of the  Arthurian legends.For his forays into the Western hinterlands, Paladin took on the black clothing and stetson hat of a bad guy.  He wasn't of course, but a little intimidation might not be bad if you're heading for a isolated settlement where no law exists. 


     I can imagine there was no other show on the air at that time where you will find a protagonist reciting John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" over the grave of an old friend.  

 When living the highlife drained his expenses, he would look for trouble in the newspapers and then go offer himself as the man to help someone (a pretty damsel, especially) or any other a highly-paid client might offer.

The twist was Paladin was a man of scruples. Sometimes he would turn against his clients if they were committing an injustice, like stuffing ballot boxes to keep a corrupt town corrupt, or terrorizing Chinese miners in a gold rush town, or wanting to lynch a man who hadn't been proved guilty by a real court of law.  

He was fast on the draw, as any You Tube compilation of the series will show you.  But there was more to Paladin than that. He genuinely did not wish to use his gun and rarely drew it unless he had to.  (Not that would-be "gunnies" could count on him playing fair; our hero could frequently pull out a ladies' type  small derringer pistol to surprise his opponents.) It's easy to see why Boone's character chooses the "knight" as the emblem of his card and on his holster: the knight, as he points out in one episode, is the most versatile piece (other than the Queen)  on the board and can attack in many different ways. And Paladin was also a chess master I believe.


  Many of the best episodes I've seen offer echos of the best Western dramas of the time that were on the big screen in films like "The Magnificent Seven"(1960) , John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962) or the films that Anthony Mann directed with James Stewart in the fifties, such as "The Naked Spur" and "Bend of the River" all fillms which turn the Western (a genre for America's Age of Heroes just as Homer's epics were for the ancient Greeks)  into a deeper drama      

 In a sense, "Have Gun..." was the first show the effectively wed the private eye genre and the Western--he was mercenary by need at times but not by nature and it was this friction (and Richard Boone's capacity to portray a man of two worlds--the cosmopolitan gnetleman and the frontier "equalizer") that make this a stronger drama that transcends any easy genre  mold. 

Two of the writers who worked on this program (which garnered Top 5 ratings for most of its six seasons) included Bruce Geller and Gene Roddenberry. Geller was later a producer of the highly-thought-of "Mission: Impossible" series which ran from 1966--1972.  Roddenberry, you might recall, had a show he created called "Star Trek", easily  the most popular American science-fiction program (or programs, given the spin-offs) ever made. 

   People interested in an above-average action show with some taut dialogue and adult themes could do little better than to give "Have Gun Will Travel" a look if they can find an episode or two online. 






  1. My mother loved this show, and I hated it! lol I was too young to appreciate it at the time, although I might enjoy it now.
    I loved westerns though, and still do. Living in Texas is nothing like the stories of old, of course, but our first trip out here, I wanted to see everything at once! lol

  2. I didn't take to it right away either, Jacquie--that opening theme music put me off at first when I was very young. It took me a few times to give the show a chance. I'm glad CBS or whomever owns it now gave it a good DVD presentation. I picked up a few episodes in ,my local library and found they still held up well. Wish I could say the same for all the shows I liked in the past.

  3. Have Gun-- Will Travel ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. The production of the half-hour series spawned 225 episodes, a remarkable average of 37 shows a year! It also produced spin-offs of paperback novels and Paladin toy gun and holster outfits for boys Christmas gifts.
    And in 1962 the great electric guitar maestro Duane Eddy did a cover of the popular theme music. The opening theme of menacing horns was composd by the great Bernard Herrman by the way.

  4. Doug, there's a reason why the four boys in "Stand By Me" sang "The Ballad of Paladin" as they hiked to find the body of the dead boy by the river - the song, and the show, were both iconic of the era.

    I was between five and seven when that show was running, and I remember it pretty well. The 'golden age of television' is what most now call it; the time when plot, storyline, and acting took center-stage.

    I'm doubting Rod Serling could get 'Twilight Zone' greenlighted today.....

  5. wow Doug are you bringing back memories...thanks my friend

  6. This certainly does bring back memories Doug...I find it something as to how one can bring up some of these old memorable movies and they are right there as if they never disappears. Seemingly within the movies we have such an array of channels from which to choose to watch.

  7. So true, Will. I remember that moment in the film--it's exactly what kids would siing to buck up their courage for an adventure in 1959-60!

    Yes, this was an action show that appealed to a broad range of people--but as I find looking over some of the episodes now, I realize it ws also a show that featuring excellent acting at all levels and wasn't afraid to present a multi-faceted dramtic situation.

    I think you're right about "Twilight Zone" by the way--being an anthology show would be a strike against it, as would some of the stories that were both disturbing AND thought-provoking would be strike two.

  8. You're always welcome Mike--thanks for stopping by.

  9. Yes, Jack, there was (maybe still is) a outlet of cable channels called "Encore" I usedto watch. Encore had a station devoted to Western films and television as well as mysteries.

    I got to see a lot of shows like "Have Gun Will Travel " again after decades and winnowed through some episodes of the Richard Boone series I hadn't seen before. This show and "The Avengers" seasons on Encore-Mystery were great shows to rediscover!

  10. Ironically Doug, "Get Smart" was inspired by "The Avengers", by way of Mel Brooks producing it as a take off.

  11. Ha! Didn't know that, Jack. But it makes perfect sense.

  12. I kid you not it does when you think of it.
    BTW I am working on something and there is more to what
    is on my page there within a little time. Thanks Doug.

  13. Shall but before I head off thought I would place this in who would have ever thought
    Maxwell's shoe would be nearly what we have today within a modern PDA. :)