One of the best shows from the Golden Era of the television Western, Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-63) was unusual in that star Richard Boone played a cultured, intellectual gunslinger-for-hire. He had a penchant for quoting the likes of Shakespeare, Tennyson, even Heraclitus, always to the bemusement of the unwashed masses that populated the Old West. Between jobs he's almost a dandy. He speaks a smattering of Mandarin and, it's revealed in an episode here, Greek as well. The Actor's Studio-trained Boone seems to have been the creative driving force behind the series in its later seasons, though many of its qualities were first established in episodes written or directed by rising talents as varied as Sam Peckinpah and Gene Roddenberry. The intellectual, often even existential writing on the show is frequently self-conscious in a Rod Serling sort of earnestness, but it's hard not to admire its enormous ambitions, especially by TV Western standards.
(However, each episode seems to work in at least one brawl and one gunfight, sometimes gratuitously. At the time Gunsmoke was more restrained; Marshal Matt Dillon sometimes managed to avoid violence altogether.)
CBS-Paramount first began releasing the series to DVD as full season sets in May 2004, but then stopped dead in its tracks after the release of Season 3 in January 2006. Earlier this year, after a more than four-year delay the DVDs resumed, albeit now as half-season sets. Have Gun - Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume 1 is the third such release this year alone. The sets of the first three seasons featured notably sub-par video transfers, probably whatever was already available at the time. With a couple of exceptions, the label has gotten much better about this, and these episodes from the 1961-62 season look vastly superior, in line with other series from the same period, like Perry Mason and Gunsmoke.
As before, Richard Boone stars as a gunfighter known only as Paladin, and like his namesake he is paragon of chivalry. Between jobs he resides at an exclusive San Francisco hotel, where his breeding and intelligence are visually at odds with the dressed-in-black gunman for hire and Boone's craggy features. Perusing the region's newspapers, he finds clients in need of his unique services and, in the show's famous trademark, sends them his business card: an image of a white knight chess figure with the words "Have Gun Will Travel. Wire Paladin. San Francisco." (Ironically, at the height of the show's popularity Ideal released an official Have Gun - Will Travel checkers game. I wish I could've seen Boone's reaction to this.)
Paladin was Have Gun - Will Travel's only major continuing character. (A stereotyped Chinese, embarrassingly called "Hey Boy" and played by Kam Tong, turns up in most episodes, often helping Paladin find new clients.*) The looseness of the show's premise allowed for a wide range of locations and situations, one of the program's strengths.
A big part of Have Gun - Will Travel's greatness is Richard Boone's introspective gentleman killer-for-hire. Boone's intimidating features and ruthless demeanor contrasted his quiet and sensitive if gravelly voice, at odds with his appearance, and which in turn made him difficult to cast. When he became a star Boone largely took charge of his own career path.
The show was in the Top Five for all of its first four years. The previous season it was the third most-watched program after Gunsmoke, which immediately followed Have Gun - Will Travel on Saturday nights, and NBC's Wagon Train. The fifth season's ratings were still good, though both Have Gun - Will Travel and Gunsmoke slipped a bit as Wagon Train and Bonanza, also on NBC, grew in popularity. Have Gun - Will Travel's fifth season lead-in, The Defenders was highly acclaimed but less popular.
In any case, as still one of the hottest shows in prime time, Have Gun - Will Travel enjoyed healthier budgets than most, and this is quite obvious watching these fifth season episodes, which were frequently shot on locations popular with movie Westerns but way beyond the tight budgets of most TV dramas. In just the first batch of episodes alone are shows filmed in Bend, Oregon and nearby Prineville, where interiors for one episode were shot at the Abbott Ranch. Bishop and Lone Pine, California, popular locations for the innumerable movie Westerns (e.g., much of the Hopalong Cassidy series) were also utilized.
The teleplays reflect the more ambitious approach: Paladin mediates between a Hatfields & McCoys-type, ages-old conflict, with both sides determined to kill the other out of existence; Paladin is forced to select among a group of stagecoach passengers the life to be sacrificed in order to avenge a dead bandito's brother; in a town where life is cheap, saloon gamblers bet against the chances of a prostitute caught in a gunfight's crossfire; Paladin meets his match in a young woman missionary determined to rid a violent town of its guns. Most of these shows don't much resemble other, much more conventional TV Westerns; only Gunsmoke (at least the Gunsmoke of 1961-62) was its equal.
The season features a surprising number of scripts written by women: Betty Andrews, Peggy Shaw (with Lou Shaw), and Joan Scott, along with Shimon Wincelberg, Robert E. Thompson, Barry Trivers, Harry Julian Fink, Robert Dozier, Anthony Wilson, and Jack Laird. Boone himself directed quite a few shows, joined by Andrew V. McLaglen, Richard Donner, Byron Paul, Elliot Silverstein, and Albert G. Ruben.
Guest stars include up-and-comers like George Kennedy (twice!), Rupert Crosse, and Charles Bronson (also twice!); musical performers like folk singer Odetta and Duane Eddy; prolific TV players such as Keith Andes, Hope Holiday, Richard Ney, Antoinette Bower, Chana Eden, Suzi Carnell, John McLiam, Ed Peck, Noah Keen, Milton Selzer, Mike Kellin, Hans Conried, Hank Patterson, Eleanor Audley, William Schallert, and Philip Coolidge; Western faces like Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, Michael Pate, Roy Barcroft, Kermit Maynard, Shug Fisher, Chuck Roberson, Strother Martin, Dabbs Greer, L.Q. Jones, and Olive Carey; and Hollywood veterans such as Colleen Gray, John Litel, Buddy Ebsen, Anthony Caruso, Tom Conway, and Don Beddoe,
Video & Audio
As stated in more detail above, Have Gun - Will Travel, in its original black & white, full frame format, appears miles ahead of its first three season sets; I hope but don't expect that CBS will eventually get around to remastering those as well. The first 19 shows from the fifth season are spread across three single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The shows run 25 1/2 minutes apiece and appear uncut and unaltered. The Dolby Digital mono is fine, and for a change English SDH subtitles are included - good for them. The discs are Region 1 encoded. There are no Extra Features
This is a terrific series that at last looks as good as it should. Highly Recommended.
For Further Reading
Andrew S. Fischer's Have Gun - Will Travel website was of considerable help to this neophyte viewer. Check it out here.
* However, reader Sergei Hasenecz argues, "If you see enough episodes of the show, you'll find that Hey Boy, despite the name, is like Charlie Chan, where the exterior is a disguise for what's really going on inside, which is a more fleshed-out character who often doesn't take condescension without a jab back. Hey Boy gets at least one episode to himself, 'Hey Boy's Revenge'(in which we learn that his name is Kim Chan), and is featured in others."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.