Have Gun Will Travel; or, The Way We Were Before Campaign '08

by cowboylands

Life must have been easier in the 1950s. Within half an hour, it was possible for a good guy to vanquish a bad guy, be a role model for youngsters, and look good in a holster.

Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man.
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire head’s the calling wind.*
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.

Between 1957 and 1963, TV viewers (many of them women) turned on their TVs with gusto, anticipating the next installment of courtly gunslinger Paladin’s next deed of derring-do. Played by craggy-faced Richard Boone, a popular method actor and descendent of Daniel Boone (neat-o!), this character is first seen in a ritzy 1870s-era hotel in San Francisco, dressed to the nines, cigar in hand, and newspapers open on his knee. After scanning the headlines for evidence of venality, brutality, and greed (and the lobby for an attractive female**), Paladin invariably slips his calling card into an envelope for the trusty hotel’s servant, “Hey Boy,” (ick) to mail.

“Have Gun Will Travel” was Paladin’s motto (and the title of the TV show). He wore black blacker than Johnny Cash’s suits. Trim slacks and shirt, aced with a tight concho belt around his hips and the low silhouette of a back hat. His gun–prominently and über-phallically displayed in the series’ opening shots–is a lean, mean machine with a silver image of a paladin chess piece on the grip. The whole set-up is well worth fawning over (as I’ve been doing, breathlessly) for a host of reasons, from technical virtuosity to sublime subliminal messages.

Paladin, Paladin Where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin, Far, far from home.

1. Top-notch production values. No fiberglass rocks here: Bend, Oregon, and Lone Pine, California, are the locations. Music by a famed composer who wrote music for Hitchcock, a popular theme song, and scriptwriters like Gene Roddenberry elevate this above the average oater; actors like Angie Dickenson, Jack Lord, and Charles Bronson join Boone’s gruff sharpshooter in intoning lines that are as eminently quotable as they are melodramatic.

2. Style. While John Ford originated the classic western look, TV shows bring it to a more stylized, almost modernist level. Think John Ford for a moment: Monument Valley. The claustrophobic interior of a bar. The swing of a gun and the piston-like legs of a horse. Ford created the symphony; leave it to TV producers to create a visual jingle that you can’t get out of your head. The directors of this series hone the stylistic glory of Ford to a few simple signature shots that  look as if they’ve tracked the eye movements of people watching westerns and discovered the essentials that people look at: crotch, lips, eyes, gun, crotch, breasts, horse, gun.

The opening shots themselves: The viewer is greeted by a close-up of Paladin’s hip, the camera centered on the silver chess knight on the gun’s grip. Accompanied by clipped voice-over by Boone, the gun is pulled from the holster, held for a moment in half-erect state, then aimed straight at the viewer (the barrel shakes a bit but is still effective), then roughly jammed back into the holster. What more do you need? Oh, right. Throw in a couple of women (there are some good girl parts, but not many) and a horse (Boone doesn’t deign to have a favorite mount–it’s a very unsentimental show).

3. Meaning. Venal bankers, cowboy bullies, greedy, land-grabbing ranchers–they seem all the smaller, grubbier, and meaner in comparison to a Shakespeare-quoting, experienced soldier of fortune who treats women and children with chivalric respect, honors the working man, and is equally as at home in urbane San Francisco as he is in the roughest rural cabin. Paladin sells his talent with a gun to the highest bidder, but Justice is his real mistress,*** which means he’s liable to turn on a crooked client. At the end of thirty minutes’ time, the real winners are the decent hard-working Americans (who in this show are astonishingly varied: men, women, white, Mexican, Native American….)

Imagine! There was a time when both having an accurate shoot-from-the-hip response and being educated were deemed heroic. The Cold War hero Paladin was a global adventurer (knowledgeable about foreign policy) and he believed in fundamental individual, family, and community values. He was definitely an Other, above the common reach of mortals (and with seemingly godlike wealth), but all of him–talent, education, core values, devil-handsome grin, weapon, thirst for doing good–were at the service of all.

Who are the TV heroes now? I’ll get back to you on that one….

He travels on to wherever he must;
A chess knight of silver is his badge of trust.
There are campfire legends that the plainsmen spin
Of the man with the gun,
of the man called Pa-l-l-l-l-a-din

* Sounds great but meaning?

** They had to ensure that the viewer would see him as heterosexual, at all costs. Too bad.

***The real reason he doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend.

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