Rollin', rollin' rollin',
Those beeves are lookin' just a tad mangy at this point on the trail. CBS DVD and Paramount have released Rawhide: The Fifth Season, Volume 1, a four-disc, sixteen-episode collection representing the long-running CBS Western's 1962-1963 season. In its fifth go-around still a solid representation of the Western drama anthology from its golden age on television, Rawhide nonetheless is starting to show small signs of repetition and burn-out...which is certainly understandable when you realize that by this point, the makers had already produced well over 100 hour-long episodes. Just some original episode promos as extras for these good-looking black-and-white transfers.
North Texas, a few years after the War Between the States. Sometimes patient, sometimes understanding, but always driving, driving, tough-as-nails trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming), has 3,000 head of cattle to get to Sedalia, Missouri, and he hasn't got time to screw around with drovers who can't cut it out on the trail. High-spirited, handsome "ramrod," Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), is second-in-command; once-shady but now steady Clay Forrester (Charles H. Gray), is the drive's scout; always grumbling, comical G.W. Wishbone (Paul Brinegar), is the chuck wagon cook; stalwart rough riders Jim Quince, Joe Scarlett and Hey Soos Patines (Steve Raines, Rocky Shahan, and Robert Cabal) are drovers for the run; and poor, dim-witted "Mushy" Mushgrove (James Murdock), the young, not too bright kid of the group, helps out Wishbone with the cooking and cleaning and doctoring. Fighting the elements every step of their journey, including bad grassland, storms, mountainous passages and killing heat and drought, Gil's team encounter obstacles not just from nature, but from the human landscape, as well, as they deal with the problems of the people they encounter out on the trail.
Yet again, I'm lacking Rawhide continuity. Like no other television series I've reviewed for DVDTalk, Rawhide has been the most ornery in terms of us consistently getting complete seasons here to watch. I've bounced around from reviewing second volumes without benefit of the first, to waiting three years for a first volume...only to never receive the second. Last year, I reviewed season four, volume 1...and never saw volume 2. So, it's obviously more difficult to draw conclusions on the series' progression with a big piece of the puzzle missing.
It's just too bad that by this fifth season, Rawhide shows small signs of jumping off its own track. As I wrote above, I've reviewed quite a few Rawhide episodes, so I won't spend time backtracking on the show's aesthetics. However, it is clear by this point that the consistently excellent writing and direction of seasons 1- 3's episodes are beginning to fade at this two-thirds point of the series' run. Certainly, repetition is becoming a problem. After all, you can only have so many episodes of shifty strangers hiding out in the cattle drive, or suspicious, possibly murderous locals eyeing the drovers, or so many stories of men trying to prove their manhood (heavy emphasis this season)―all framed by the increasingly familiar "natural" obstacles like drought, ticks, lack of grazing grass, and hostile/suspicious Indians―before one Rawhide episodes starts to look and sound like an earlier Rawhide episode. As I wrote in my seasons 3 and 4 reviews, the trend to deemphasize the gritty, realistic feel of life on a cattle drive―so well delineated in earlier seasons―continues here (at least in these first 16 episodes), with more and more of these Rawhide turns focusing on studio-bound problems of the various people who come upon the drive, rather than man battling the elements. Quite frankly by this point, you don't really believe they're on a cattle drive. Too many interior-shot campsite scenes dominate, too many performer close-ups and mock-ups of outdoor locales prevail, as the stories revolve less and less around the doggies, and more and more around the guests who show up, and their various foibles and troubles (what happened to that great central story arc in season 4, where the men become their own masters, buying up their own cattle? Was that resolved in the second volume of that particular season...because it's gone here). Rawhide, the brawling, sweaty, sometimes mystically powerful series from its first few outings, seems entirely too tame by this fifth season.
Still, episodes good in their own (limited) right show up in Rawhide: The Fifth Season, Volume 1...with about the same frequency as the marginal, unfortunately. The season opener, Incident of El Toro (which some references site as a sixth season episode, but which is here listed with a September 21st, 1962 air date), looks at the effects of routine on even that most romantic of American icons: the cowboy. Trail boss Gil is fed up with his routine, with the same challenges, the same cows, the same bitching, complaining cowboys (I wonder if this was someone's idea of a subliminal message to the producers...), and so he quits, while troublemaker James Best helps Hey Soos face his cowardice when they both hunt a rogue bull (Paul Brinegar has some soon-to-be-a-TV-cliché, post-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit/pre-hippie advice for Gil, when Gil says he feels like his life is a prison sentence: "Everybody's in a kind of jail...who's free?"). Incident of the Hunter, written by Charles Larson, features a good turn from Mark Stevens as a former Confederate colonel-turned-bounty hunter, whose arrival at the drive causes everyone to examine their own conscience for the often illegal activities of their own past histories. If Rawhide has to be "interior," then this is the kind of episode that should have dominated. Nobody on the drive, it turns out, is a goody-two-shoes Western "hero." They all have skeletons in their pasts (even comically cranky cook Wishbone may have killed someone with poisoned food), and they soon learn that Gil's decidedly even-steven American approach to such dilemmas is best: mind your own business.
Incident of the Portrait takes a time-worn plot―John Ireland accidentally kills Emile Meyer, thinking Meyer's daughter, gorgeous Nina Shipman, witnessed it...until he realizes she's blind― and makes it work due to the excellent turns by Shipman and particularly Ireland, an underrated actor who was good playing tough/tender. Incident at Cactus Wells, unfortunately, takes an equally familiar storyline―Keenan Wynn wants unthinking vengeance for his amoral wife's downfall―and does nothing much with it (Wynn's blank performance doesn't exactly help, either). You might say the exact same thing for Incident of the Prodigal Son, where Gene Evans overplays (as usual) the gruff father figure to hot-shot rich punk Carl Reindel, in this well-worn outing. Incident of the Lost Woman isn't much better, with cows and cowboys battling nature taking second-fiddle to Fay Spain and her baby trying to outrun controlling grandfather R.G. Armstrong. Much, much better is Incident of the Dogfaces, scripted by Gene L. Coon, where "galvanized" (Southern troops who escaped prison sentences by fighting Indians for the North) dogface James Whitmore alters the drovers' sense of right and wrong, treason and loyalty, by presenting a morally complicated portrait of a soldier wishing to engage his enemy for the purposes of personal redemption...and destruction (Whitmore's discussion of the Army's duplicitous reading of the U.S. government/Indian treaties is striking and deeply troubling. He admits the Army way of killing Indians may not be moral, but it is merciful, since the war-like Indians only respect this method: better a solider puts down their dying culture, rather than cowardly, dishonest Washington politicians).
Incident of the Wolvers would have been far more memorable had it focused exclusively on the threat of wolves to the cattle drive, and the process of killing them off, instead of dragging in a standard "controlling father/naïve daughter" subplot (Dan Duryea, as always, is excellent here as the sly, dangerous father). Incident at Sugar Creek sports an excellent cast―Everett Sloane, Beverly Garland, Arthur Franz, John Larch, James Westerfield, John Litel―in this solid story of a vengeful father setting up his son-in-law as a traitor to protest the marriage. On a much lighter note, the comedic Incident of the Reluctant Bridegroom sports an equally talented cast, including Arch Johnson, Ed Nelson, and Harry Lauter, in this funny outing that has Rowdy getting mickeyed, only to marry the perfectly delectable Ruta Lee ("the idiot of the plains" lives up to his name by wanting a divorce). The very funny character actor Edward Andrews isn't so funny in a good turn as a lying, conniving, lazy rat in Incident of the Querencias, where a fairly standard Rawhide theme―can a once "big wheel" prove himself a worthy "man" out on the trail―is given a good workout. Incident of Decision benefits from a solid performance from Carlos Romero as a conflicted Mexican aristocrat-turned-bandit who teaches a life lesson to crippled Doug Lambert. That excellent character actress, Constance Ford, seems wasted in the trifle, Incident of the Buryin' Man, where King Donovan hams it up something awful as a weaseling undertaker who, once again in Rawhide-land, needs to prove his mettle on the drive...just as Harold J. Stone, going blind, must do in Incident of the Trail's End (they throw in the other standard Rawhide theme―"'big wheel' felled low"―just for good measure).
Finally, two episodes worthy of earlier Rawhide seasons―Incident at Quivira and Incident of the Four Horsemen―make welcome appearances here in this set. Quivira finds Royal Dano completely off his nut, screaming about the lost golden city of Quivira, enlisting Mushy to go against the drovers and accompany him out into the desert. Once there, they come across long-ago Union deserter Claude Akins, who futilely seeks the non-existent city, as well. It's a sad, rather downbeat meditation on dreamers and running away from reality, made quite effective by Akins (always good) and especially Dano (watch his eyes when he asks Mushy of his hum-drum life, "Ain't ya tired, boy?!"). Even better is Four Horsemen, an obvious but strongly-cast allegory (written by Charles Carson) that finds Akins again, John Dehner, James Griffith, and Roberto Contreras as the literal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, descending upon a potential land feud, with Gil and Rowdy and the gang as collateral damage. Directed by Thomas Carr, it's the kind of entry that used to pop up with regularity in earlier Rawhides, filled with a strange, powerful mysticism that would find even fuller expression in the Sergio Leone Westerns in which Clint Eastwood would soon star (Akins and Dehner, both excellent character actors, are particularly good here, with knowing, sly performances).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.