A knight without armor in a savage land
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.
Craggy-faced philosopher Paladin, the erudite gunfighter-for-hire played by articulate, hard-drinking Richard Boone, is back for Have Gun - Will Travel: The Final Season, Volume One, featuring the first 16 half-hour shows from the 1962-63 season. The late 1950s and early '60s had produced an enormous glut of TV Westerns that dominated the prime time schedule. By 1964, most of them, including Have Gun - Will Travel, were off the air.
Today, most are forgotten. A few, like Rawhide and Wanted: Dead or Alive, are remembered mainly as stepping stones for their rising stars, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen in those cases. But the two best TV Westerns of that era, the ones that truly endure, undoubtedly were Gunsmoke, TV's first "adult Western" and that which, in its best years, was as good as any "straight" drama on television, and Have Gun - Will Travel, the intellectual, even existential Western. The iconography was much like any other weekly oater. There were bad guys and shoot-outs and Indians and cattle rustlers, but what made it stand out were its dream-like narratives and especially the character of Paladin himself, a Western hero like no other.
CBS-Paramount first began releasing the series to DVD as full season sets in May 2004, but these were notably unimpressive video transfers (and, by 2013 standards, quite mediocre). The label seemed to lose interest after their release of Season 3 in January 2006, but after a more than four-year delay the DVDs resumed as half-season sets with now significantly improved transfers, and the whole series is at last available. (But will CBS/Paramount remaster those earlier inferior releases? I sure hope so.)
For the uninitiated: Richard Boone stars as the gunfighter known only as Paladin, and like his namesake he is a 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-entirely-in-black gunman for hire and Boone's singularly ruddy features. Perusing the region's newspapers, he finds clients in need of his unique services and, in the show's famous trademark, offers up his business card: an image of a white knight chess figure with the words "Have Gun Will Travel. Wire Paladin. San Francisco." The card makes an appearance in almost, if not literally every episode.
Paladin was Have Gun - Will Travel's only major continuing character, though Hey Boy, played by Kam Tong, turns up in many shows 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. His intimidating features and ruthless demeanor contrasted his unexpectedly soft and sensitive if gravelly voice, very much at odds with his appearance, and which in turn made Boone difficult to cast. When he became a star Boone largely took charge of his own career path. And despite his tough exterior, Paladin in most episodes goes to great length to avoid bloodshed. He all but defines the term "world-weary" and, like James Arness's Matt Dillon, a big part of his appeal is watching him mostly silently sizing up conflicts and characters. Unlike Matt Dillon Paladin was less predictable, a gentle man one minute, who might lash out with physical violence the next.
Have Gun - Will Travel was a huge success its first four seasons on CBS, ranking fourth among prime-time network shows during 1957-58, upping to third place for its next three seasons. But during its fourth season Have Gun - Will Travel inexplicably plunged in the ratings to #29, though its 22.2 share would be considered huge today. During seasons one through four, the Saturday night completion was weak, plus Have Gun - Will Travel served as a lead-in for Gunsmoke, the Number One show. The following season's premiere of NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, which famously became the first program to air much newer, post-1953 movies for the first time on television, hurt, as did Have Gun's new lead-in, the critically acclaimed but lower-rated The Defenders. The sixth and final season was much the same, and by this point Boone was ready to try something new.
The result was The Richard Boone Show, an ambitious, unique half-hour anthology series but which utilized the same actors, more or less, in every show. (Besides Boone, Warren Stevens, Bethel Leslie, Harry Morgan, Guy Stockwell, Robert Blake, and others were featured.) It earned rave reviews but lasted only one season.
As for Have Gun - Will Travel's final season, episodes alternate between the weary, the pretentious, and the Who-gives-a-damn-let's-do-something-really experimental-and-interesting. In other words, despite a few turkeys, the program continues to fascinate here and there, and some shows are really outstanding and quite unlike anything on television.
A typical example is "Marshal of Sweetwater" (in Volume 1) written by a pre-Star Trek Gene Roddenberry. Paladin visits an old army buddy of his, now the marshal of a singularly peaceful, prosperous town. But it soon becomes apparent all this law and order comes at a stiff price: the marshal is a despot, a tyrant with his personal set of iron-clad laws intended to keep the peace (a three-drink limit at local saloons, which have limited operating hours, etc.). The arrival of a new, Miss Kitty-like saloon owner (Kathie Browne) also reveals the marshal's repressed sexual frustrations (and presumed accompanying dysfunction). That the marshal is played by a wildly cast-against-type David White (Darrin's boss on Bewitched) in a superb performance make this all the more captivating.
Undoubtedly the most talked-about sixth season episode is "Genesis" (Volume 1), written by co-creator (with Herb Meadow) Sam Rolfe, and directed by William Conrad. Conrad also co-stars as the land dealer who, in flashback, provides a young, irresponsible aristocrat (Boone, pre-Paladin) the opportunity to pay off a $15,000 gambling debt in exchange for killing a mysterious gunfighter named "Smoke," a chivalrous and enlightened sage dressed in the same black costume as the later Paladin. In other words, the episode explores how Paladin became Paladin, while still retaining much of the mystery of that character's origins. Boone, minus his usual mustache and wearing a blonde wig, also plays Smoke in this episode, but visually they look different enough that many in the audience were fooled, at least until the end credits revealed Boone played both parts.
Other good final season shows include "The Fifth Bullet" (Volume 1, written by Harry Julian Fink), about Paladin's efforts to return a man he captured and denied a fair trial, safe passage home after his sentence is served; "Memories of Monica" (Volume 1, written by Don Ingalls), a High Noon riff with Paladin standing tall when the sheriff turns yellow; and, my personal favorite, "Sweet Lady of the Moon" (Volume 2, written by Harry Julian Fink, directed by Boone).
In that episode, an apparently insane man, Soddenberg (Crahan Denton), convicted of murder, is released from prison and the Hannibal Lecter-like cage holding him, and into the custody of gentle rancher Murdock (Harry Carey, Jr.) Soddenberg himself wants to be kept chained-up, but both Murdock and Soddenberg's doctor (Richard Shannon) believe him cured and reformed. An intense, authentic and even clinical portrait of mental illness, this episode appears to have been shot at least a full season before it finally aired. No wonder.
Guest stars this season include (in Volume 1): James Mitchum, Shug Fisher, Ben Johnson, Hal Needham (frequently, and also stunts), Robert Blake, Paul Richards, Faith Domergue, John Hoyt, Judi Meredith, Richard Jaeckel, Edgar Buchanan (whose Petticoat Junction killed The Richard Boone Show the following season), Joanna Barnes, Roy Barcroft, Duane Eddy, Jeanne Cooper, Jim David, Lee Van Cleef, DeForest Kelley; (in Volume 2): Charles Bronson, Woodrow Parfrey, Wayne Rogers, Eleanor Audley, Gale Garnett, L.Q. Jones, Patricia Medina, Harry Morgan, Robert J. Wilke, Whit Bissell, Elinor Donohue, Paul Fix, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ford Rainey, Cliff Osmond, Jacqueline Wilson, Patric Knowles, Warren Stevens, Brett Somers, Chris Alcaide, George Kennedy, Bethel Leslie, William Schallert, Gail Kobe, and Hank Patterson.
Video & Audio
Unlike those earliest Have Gun - Will Travel season sets, The Final Season, both Volumes 1 & 2, in its original black & white, full frame format, look outstanding throughout. The 16 shows here are spread across just two dual-layered DVDs. Each show runs 25 1/2 minutes apiece (oddly, no time codes are available on Volume 1 but are on Volume 2) and all 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
One of the all-time great Western series, Have Gun - Will Travel: The Final Season is Highly Recommended.
Andrew S. Fischer's Have Gun - Will Travel website was of considerable help to this neophyte viewer. Check it out here.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.