I’ve recently discovered a passion for watching old, black-and-white Westerns—not the movies, but the decades’ old TV series. The Rifleman. Wagon Train. Rawhide. Have Gun Will Travel. Gunsmoke. Maverick. These and several other shows have become a guilty pleasure in which I regularly indulge, watching them on the Classic TV rerun channels.
Never mind their asinine, inaccurate, and degrading depictions of Native Americans, nearly always played by Caucasian actors dipped in stage makeup. Disregard the pioneers with perfect teeth…the women with perfectly-coiffed hair, makeup, clean dresses, and even popped collars. Ignore the rare appearance of dirt and sweat, pipes and chewing tobacco on the well-shaven male main characters…the healthy, fat and strong herd animals and horses (barely a mule or a burro to be seen!) Overlook the extremely rare appearance of a black or Asian person (although Hispanics, all too often portrayed as cunning or criminal, seem to abound). Never mind the Hollywood fiction of bespangled saloon girls and the frequently wrong-for-the-era clothing of all the characters. Yes, it’s all ridiculous. And, yes, despite all the nonsense and bias, I still enjoy watching these old Westerns.
I grew up watching them, of course; these and several other shows were the common TV fare of my childhood, so there is a nostalgia connected with viewing the reruns. I was too young when I first saw them to now remember more than a scene or two, or a particular character, so I delight in the stories; to me, they are not reruns; they are brand-new.
But what strikes me most about many of these old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films may be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but. Racism. Spousal abuse. Bullying. Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage as opposed to implied cowardice. Gun control. Bigotry. The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.
Characters in these old shows agonized over decisions in which they felt their ethics would be compromised. Every shade of grey in the human experience comprised part of the Western stories, and their conclusions were surprisingly contemporary—sometimes what we would now, scathingly, refer to as “politically correct”. And although often simplistic, the answers provided in each 30- or 60-minute show were, above all, honorable and decent. They exhibited complex interactions between main characters who held civility and courtesy to be their abiding principles, who genuinely believed that a man’s word was his bond. There was always an expectation that individuals who were proved wrong would admit their fault and be punished for it—and yet justice was often, unexpectedly, tempered with mercy.
My brother commented once that he realized he’d learned much of his understanding of morality from watching episodes of “The Rifleman”. His comment made me wonder what the children of the current generation are learning from their diet of TV fare consisting of the carefully orchestrated unreality of “reality” shows, horrific crime dramas, and bloody fantasy programs.
It will be a long time before I’ve finished watching these old Western reruns. Even when I’m certain I’ve seen most of the episodes, I occasionally run across one I missed. And I expect to go on enjoying them, despite the fact that many of the episodes are now reruns even to me. Like a complex tapestry, the many threads that make up these decades’ old stories are carefully crafted and interwoven, and endlessly surprising.