The History of TV Westerns
The TV Western is without precedent. According to historian J.Fred MacDonald TV westerns were like "no form of mass entertainment has been so dominant and then so insignificant as the Western." The Western had stampeded through American livng rooms in the late 1940s but would disappear from American television by the 1980s. Americans according to sciologist Mashall McLuhan could not not connect "living in Bonanza-land, contemporary soceity evidences no fascination with the symbolism of and mystique of the video Old West.
Back in its hayday, TV Westerns encapsulated what it meant to be American. TV in the United States did not take place in a vacuum, and American idealogy seeped through televison screens indoctrinating Americans with ideas of their own exceptionalism and superiority. The Western was the most American genre. According to MacDonald, "It [Westerns] was truly the all-American genre. No type of popular entertainment has been associated more completely withe American civilization. Politically, spiritually, economically, and ethically the genre has communicated an understanding of the United States and its place in the world." The TV Western allowed Americans to relive their epic past, reminding Euro-Americans of their heroism and dominance over everything else.
As the 1970s ended and social perceptions began to change the heroic cowboys faded from primetime television and into syndicated reruns. As the media began to broadcast the civil rights movements and countless social injustices in the United States, as well as the horrors of the Vietnam War, Americans became more cyinical to the TV Western. The TV Western offered a romanticized version of violence and racist attitudes towards minorirites that could no longer be justified. And while this television genre when out with a whimper instead of a bang, the TV Western will forever define Victory Culture.
The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger, first appeared in 1933 in a radio show created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. The character was originally believed to be inspired by Texas Ranger Captian John R. Hughes. Other inspirations came from fictional characters like Zorro and Robin Hood. The popular radio series, also spawned a series of books and a the most popular incaration The Lone Ranger television show from 1949 to 1957.
The Lone Ranger television series starred Clayton Moore, as the titular character, and Jay Silverheels (Mohawk) starred as the Lone Ranger's companion Tonto. In 1952, John Hart would replace Moore in the title role over contract disputes, however, Moore would return to the role in 1954. And Fred Foy served as the show's narrator.
The Lone Ranger centered around the plot that all of the Texas Rangers had died except one, the "lone" survivor thereafter disguises himself with a black mask and travels with Tonto throughout the West, challenging dasterdly villians.
The popular series projected the idea that Tonto was a sidekick to the white Lone Ranger. The portrayal of Tonto created the idea that Indians were America’s sidekicks. Only helpers in achieving greatness, never the heroes. Fred MacDonald further explains that “Tonto was an assimilated Indian, a partner who embraced the white man’s dominion and now rode to enforce its laws.” The Lone Ranger made sure to emphasize that there were good Indians like Tonto and bad Indians, those who were unwilling to adapt to the new frontier. The friendship between Tonto and the masked ranger suggests a remarkable degree of racial reconciliation considering the time frame. The only reason that Tonto is held in such high regards is because he has separated himself from his “savagery”, he was a helper in justice. During World War II over 44,000 Native peoples served in the United States armed forces, they fought alongside white Americans to achieve greatness, to win a war. Tonto emulated the role that Native peoples took in the post-World War II era, vaguely acknowledged only if they followed white America’s society.The abducted son (Robert Arthur) of a banker shoots his captor while trying to escape, and then tells the Masked Man and Tonto how he was taken captive. Later, he's re-captured along with Tonto (Jay Silverheels). This scene is a perfect example of The Lone Ranger showing us the bad Indian and the good one (Tonto)
The Wild White West
The Lone Ranger make an oddity in television Westerns. Most Western television shows did not recognize or pay much attention to minorities or women. Televisions series like the popular Bonanza (1959-1973) and The Rifleman (1958-1963) chose to focus on Euro-American experiences in the West. Victory Culture focused on the white male American experience, just like America focused on the white male experience during the II World War. The exceptionalism of caucasian male Americans that fought during the war was traced back to their ultra masculine ancestors in these television shows.
Bonanza which aired from 1959 to 1973 aired on NBC. Lasting 14 seasons and 431 episodes Bonanza is NBC's longest running western, and second longest running western on a U.S. television network. The show is set around the 1860s in Virginia City, Nevada and centers aroudn the Cartwright family. The Cartwright family is headed by thrice-widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene). He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest an architect Adam (Pernell Roberts), the loveable giant Eric "Hoss" and the hothead youngest Joseph "Little Joe" (Michael Landon). The show at its core was a family drama, but played off family dramas and social issues. However, while Bonanza was socially concious (issues of anti-semiticism, and Chinese immigration were addressed) the show sorely lacked women. Like many of contemporary TV westerns, the show featured widows, and one-off romances that were forgotten within a few episodes. For Hollywood, the West was an overpopulated white male world, that relished in bachelorhood.
Just like Bonanza, The Rifleman which aired from 1958-1963 focused on a widower. Starring Chuck Connors as rancher and Civil War veteran Lucas McCain, and Johnny Crawford as his son Mark McCain. The McCains own a ranch first in the fictitious town of North Fork, New Mexico and later in Enid, Oklahoma. The title of the show references McCain's use of a modified Winchester rifle. The show also celebrated masculine relationships, forgoing and permenant female actors or storylines.
Victory culture in westerns mirrored TV western heroes with World War II heroes. Both sets of these heroes were illustrated as all-American, Caucasian, male and usually Protestant. All these ideas guided victory culture, which celebrated rugid masculinity, brotherhood, and bachlorhood all things which happened to be TV western staples.