It’s more familiar to film buffs than it is to the generation that still watches old TV Westerns on assorted cable, streaming and Grit TV channels. And to us, it’s attained cult status, a “Prisoner” or “Black Adder” but beloved because it gave a career to the filmmaker who’d eventually make “Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway.”
“The Westerner” was Sam Peckinpah’s graduation from writing an episode, here and there, for TV series created by and run by others — a “Rifleman” here, several “Gunsmokes” there.
And SOMEbody over at Roku must be a fan. Seems like every month there’s an obscure early Sam Peckinpah film or now, this formative series which put him not just on the screenplay page, but behind the camera, working out the brawny, simple style he’d film with and the violence he’d explore as a theme, a flinty element of the American “Western” character.
The show was rare, even in its day, a half-hour Western drama. Peckinpah learned to pack a lot of information in every shot and use as few set-ups as possible until he got to the generally violent payoffs.
He built the show around an actor he befriended, Brian Keith, and paired the man with a dog damn near as big as he was — Brown. And he populated the supporting cast with grizzled veterans of Western movies and TV — Dub Taylor and Arthur Hunnicutt, Karl Swenson, R.G. Armstrong and John Dehner and John Anderson. Hell, even the dog, “Spike,” was famous. He’d played “Old Yeller.”
The series made Keith better known and gave big boosts to future stars (Robert Culp) and Peckinpah mainstays like Warren Oates (he’s in the series pilot, “Jeff”) and Slim Pickens.
Right from that opening episode, we see Peckinpah pack as much “story” as possible in a long establishing shot, a camera panning over the lowlifes of a remote saloon where Jeff (Diana Millay), a barmaid and singer, is under the thumb of some Brit ex-boxer (Geoffrey Toone).
As the first shot of the series has Dave Blassingame (Keith) fussing at Brown to keep up as he has some “killing” to do, we know what’s coming.
If you want to know where America’s fetishing of firearms comes from, the best place to start is the TV Westerns of the late ’50s and early ’60s — Blassingame’s “inherited” Winchester with a scope stood out even from Chuck Conners’ Wincehster on “The Rifleman” and the shortened “Mare’s Leg” Winchester Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall wore like a pistol on “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Before the pilot episode is over, Blassingame’s soft, sentimental side will be laid out as he tries to talk Jeff into leaving with him, his toughness will come to the fore as the boxer beats the daylights out of him before he gets the upper hand on him and a Native American bartender will be killed in a shootout, and pretty much forgotten as Blassingame takes stock of what Jeff has put him and others through by the closing credits.
Every episode is minimalist, archetypal and derivative. Dave tries to “save” a “fallen woman” (“Stagecoach”). Dave comes close to a mob hanging for a murder he didn’t commit (shades of “The Ox-Bow Incident”), Dave is “tested” by the temptation of a prospector’s “Treasure” (reminiscent of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and so on.
Dave is a Western “type” who defies type, a man of uncertain “moral compass” and a lot less predictable. Even the dog sets us up for “Lassie” heroics, leaping through a glass window to “save” Dave, only to be more interested in devouring the villains’ victuals than untying Dave’s hands.
The dog is so big it’s nothing for him to put paws on a table and sample Dave’s drink for him. And he’s so big Dave and others are not all that interested in stopping him.
The violence is plentiful and artfully-staged and filmed, but no more explicit than the standards of the day would allow.
It’s a pity there was only one season of the show. But if it hadn’t ended, Peckinpah wouldn’t have quickly graduated to directing features. He and Keith went off to do Peckinpah’s film directing debut, “The Deadly Companions,” with Maureen O’Hara, the spring after this show was canceled.
As it was, the 13 episodes now on Roku (or Amazon, or other streamers you may prefer) stand like the early short films of Chaplin or Keaton, the formative and instructive (to fans) works of a future master, learning his craft, one three or four-day shoot at a time.
Rating: unrated, pretty violent for a 1960 TV series
Cast: Brian Keith, Warren Oates, Diana Millay, Dub Taylor, Katy Jurado, John Dehner, R.G. Armstrong, John Anderson, Karl Swenson, Slim Pickens.
Credits: Created and mostly-written by Sam Peckinpah, often directed by Sam Peckinpah. Now on Roku TV.
Running time: 13 @:25 minutes each.