The TV Westerns of My Youth

Lately, I have been watching old Westerns using the Amazon Prime Video channel. As a kid I loved The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and to a lesser extent Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. In case you’re wondering about the cover photo, Scout is on the left, then Tonto, The Lone Ranger and Silver on the right. The horses were often better actors than the humans, but I doubt they were paid as much. Thinking of the singing cowboy stars, who ever really thought cowboys played guitars and sang campfire songs on those cattle drives? They did get to eat cool food. Beans, biscuits and bacon. The three Bs of a healthy diet. I can just smell the… never mind.

Hopalong Cassidy was one of the first Westerns to make the switch to the small screen. Television. I don’t remember watching William Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong, as often as the other heroes of the Old West, but after watching it on Amazon, I enjoyed it as much, and though it pains me to say it, even more than The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. Though I still love hearing the William Tell Overture and the intro music used for The Cisco Kid. Sacrilege you say! The Lone Ranger stood for law and justice and everything a young boy should aspire to become. (Other than the mask which modern facial recognition software would render obsolete.)

As near as I can tell, there are three essential parts to any good Western (I’m talking about Westerns for kids, not the adult stuff like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Rawhide and Mister Ed.)

First there must be a long chase scene. The horses were awesome creatures. They could chase at full speed for miles through terrain that would completely disable a custom Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. On a side note, why are modern horse races like the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and others so short? Two minutes and they’re over. Silver, Scout, Diablo, Loco, Trigger and Champion could race like the wind for half the show. Another version of the chase scene would be the runaway stagecoach or wagon. Usually with a helpless female on board, or else the driver would be miraculously shot with one of the hundreds of bullets fired in his general direction. The team of horses had more stamina and endurance than a diesel locomotive.

The second part essential to any good Western serial was the shootout. And I mean shoot until your hand must have cramped up! Have you ever tried to count how many shots are fired in a typical shootout? I have, but I lost track at 2,148 shots fired without reloading. And even more amazing is the fact that only a small percentage of those thousands of bullets ever reached their intended human target. A blind geriatric from a nursing home (before COVID-19) would have a higher success rate. Yet most often the times when those bullets did hit a human, it was the hand holding the gun. Cowboys, sheriffs and gunslingers could be firing at close range at each other for the obligatory five minute shoot out scene without hitting anything. But then would come the miracle shot (often from a greater distance than the range of modern cruise missiles) knocking the gun from the bad guy’s hand. And no the bad guys did not always wear black cowboy hats. Hopalong Cassidy often, usually, wore a black hat and black outfit. (Must be where Johnny Cash got the inspiration for his song.)

The third part would be the female character. Though the names were changed, the character didn’t. The female lead was most often; coming out West after going to school back East; the younger sister of the sheriff or other good guy; sometimes a widow with kids; (Okay, there was some variety in the female characters, but hot much and ignore my punctuation. I used semi-colons because it’s easier than holding down the shift key or finding out… never mind.) The lead cowboy was usually a gentleman, though the Cisco Kid liked to flirt with every lady in the episode. (Production budgets normally restricted the number of female characters to one per episode.) At least Roy Rogers was married to Dale Evans, but why wasn’t her character called Dale Rogers?

The fourth part (Ooops! Lost count) was the climax. It was usually a combination of a shoot out on horses (Again lasting several minutes at speeds Mustangs struggle to maintain – the Ford kind.) or in a cabin somewhere in the middle of nowhere. (The cabin looked the same in every episode and on every different series – again with the exception of the Ponderosa on Bonanza.) I’m amazed at how much glass the producers had to replace every episode. Bullets apparently were stopped by walls thin enough to poke a hole in with a McDonald’s straw. (paper not plastic) I suppose whoever owned the cabins had insurance that covered window breakage. In the end, the bad guys would be caught and sent to jail. The old prospector would regain his stolen mine (which often produced more gold and silver than the entire Klondike and Colorado gold rushes combined.) The rustled cattle would be returned to their rightful owner in time to be butchered. The stolen money would be returned to the bank vaults which looked as secure as the bathroom door in my house and all would be right in the West. (Until the next episode which would start with a chase scene, shoot out and…

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