The Hateful Eight may seem familiar to fans of a classic TV western.
Consider this scenario: At a Wild West stagecoach station, passengers disembark and settle in for the evening. The usual proprietor is not on the premises, but a substitute offers hospitality and hot coffee to the disparate travelers. One of the passengers is a bounty hunter accompanying a handcuffed prisoner — an impudent shady lady who’s said to be much deadlier than she looks. Indeed, the bounty hunter intends to escort her to another town, where he expects to collect a large reward, and she expects to be hanged for murder.
Conversations among the strangers — assuming they really are unknown to each other — are something short of amiable, and in some cases downright hostile. (Bounty hunting, it turns out, is not universally viewed as a respectable line of work.) And a tense situation only get worse when someone takes a sip of a poisoned beverage — and drops dead on the spot. In the aftermath of this individual’s demise, a debate ensues: Should the remaining travelers agree to let the accused killer go free? Or will someone else accept the task of guarding her – and, while doing so, risk a close encounter with her likely accomplice(s)?
Sound familiar? Well, maybe that’s because you’re heard or read about The Hateful Eight, the forthcoming western flick from writer-director Quentin Tarantino. After an early draft of the movie’s script was leaked online last year, reports detailing the aforementioned plot points popped up on various blogs and websites. And even now, a widely circulated trailer for the film — set to open Dec. 25 — suggests that, while Tarantino may have done some rewriting, the basic narrative set-up remains unchanged in the finished product.
But here’s the thing: That synopsis also could serve as a recap of “Fair Game,” an episode of the half-hour western drama The Rebel, which ran for two seasons, 1959-61, on ABC.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: The Rebel showcased Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a former Confederate soldier and budding author who roamed the West during the post-Civil War period, righting wrongs and surviving scrapes and generally gathering material for a novel or memoir. (As Johnny Cash succinctly explained in the show's theme song: "Johnny Yuma was a rebel. He roamed through the West.") Given Yuma’s insistence on continuing to wear parts of his Confederate uniform long after the surrender at Appomattox, it wasn’t surprising that he often got into serious tussles with folks who didn’t much cotton to having some Johnny Reb in their immediate vicinity. In some episodes, however, Yuma got into trouble simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Scripted by Richard Newman, “Fair Game” — which premiered on March 27, 1960 — was one of 33 Rebel episodes directed by Irvin Kershner, who went on to direct such notable features as A Fine Madness, Loving, and a little sci-fi movie called The Empire Strikes Back. In this particular episode, Yuma winds up at the stagecoach station because of his horse’s untimely demise – the same reason why at least two characters in Tarantino’s script wind up at that story’s stagecoach station — and fortuitously is on hand when a stage arrives bearing a bounty hunter named Farnum (James Chandler) and his beautiful prisoner, accused murderer Cynthia Kenyon (Patricia Medina). Also on hand: Bert Pace (James Drury, later famous as TV’s The Virginian), a spiffily dressed stranger who says he’s on his way to Laredo, and an attendant (Michael Masters) who claims to be filling in for someone on sick leave.
The stage can’t leave until morning because “the country up ahead’s a mite rough,” and should be traversed only during daylight. (In Hateful Eight, the outbound journey is delayed by a blizzard.) So everyone will just have to wait until dawn. Provided they live that long.
And then somebody is poisoned.
Please don’t misunderstand: We’re not accusing Quentin Tarantino of plagiarism. You should keep in mind that, during the golden age of TV westerns, the era when The Rebel aired, various series “borrowed” (inadvertently or otherwise) plot elements, if not entire plots, from each other. And let’s face it: This specific plot already was whiskery when Agatha Christie employed a variation of it way back when she wrote And There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians) — a novel, it should be noted, that has “inspired”, and continues to inspire, TV writers working in a wide variety of genres throughout the entire history of television.
Tarantino, whose knowledge of ‘50s and ‘60s TV is said to be nearly as vast as his knowledge of grindhouse cinema, already has admitted to Mike Fleming Jr. of the Deadline Hollywood website that he drew inspiration not from any particular movie western, but rather from such fondly remembered series as Bonanza and The Virginian:
“Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa and hold everybody hostage, or to go Judge Garth’s place — Lee J. Cobb played him — in The Virginian and take hostages. There would be a guest star like David Carradine, Darren McGavin, Claude Akins, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson or James Coburn. I don’t like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a western, where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed.
“I thought, ‘What if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling backstories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.’”
That is Tarantino’s story and, really, we have no reason not to take him at his word. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that at some point during his childhood, he simply viewed, and then forgot he viewed, this Rebel episode in a syndicated rerun. (He was not yet born when the episode first aired on ABC.)
On the other hand, it’s more than a little jarring to view “Fair Game” – now readily available as part of The Rebel: The Complete Series, the 11-DVD boxed set recently released by Timeless Media Group — and note the… well, similarities between the routine 1960 TV drama and the storyline for the movie coming soon to a theater or drive-in near you.
Maybe Quentin Tarantino has seen even more TV westerns than he realizes.