A new book remembers those bygone days of TV with a special fondness for westerns.
The glory days of the television western may have been more than 50 years ago, but many of these series still play every day on television, where they are watched and enjoyed by those who grew up with them and new generations as well. And after this challenging year of pandemics and political turmoil, even more people are turning back to the classic shows of yesteryear for the comfort and happiness they bring.
Longtime C&I contributor David Hofstede has written a book called When Television Brought Us Together that celebrates that first era of television and how it continues to resonate with audiences now.
“The book grew out of a blog I started back in 2012 called Comfort TV. Originally it was just supposed to be a place to write about all the classic shows from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that I grew up watching and still enjoy watching today. But then I began to think about why people like me prefer watching shows that are 40 or 50 years old, to all the new shows available,” Hofstede says. “Obviously they’re good shows, and you can watch them with your kids without worrying about the content, but I thought it had to be more than that.
“The answer, I think, is that these shows also provide a look into what life in America was like at the time they were created — this is what schools were like, this is what families were like. And to many of us old enough to remember those times, they seemed better than what we have now.”
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on westerns from When Television Brought Us Together.
The Great Train Robbery, an 11-minute film released in 1903, is often credited as the first narrative motion picture shot in the United States. It was a western.
For most of the 20th century, there were more westerns made than any other type of movie. Once television came of age that trend continued, beginning in 1949 with The Lone Ranger and the debut of The Gene Autry Show one year later.
The peak of the TV western craze was 1958-1959, when 30 westerns aired simultaneously in prime time. Television fans wanted to see cowboys — more than cops or doctors or lawyers or detectives. Despite the fact that most of these shows had a similar look and setting, viewers could not get enough of fast-draw marshals, gunslingers for hire, barroom brawls, territory disputes between ranchers and homesteaders, and heroes who lived by the code of the west.
But those days, like the days of saloon showdowns and stagecoach travel, are now long gone.
Why has the popularity of the western diminished? Changing times and tastes may be partly to blame. The superhero genre is where audiences now cheer the battles between good guys and bad guys; Wyatt Earp can’t compete with Batman and Captain America.
But I suspect the main culprit for westerns falling out of popular favor is a generational condemnation of the Old West era. As Smithsonian Magazine observed in 2016, “Dismantling cherished fables about the Old West and stripping the romance from the history of ‘Westward Ho,’ newer studies have exhumed the human casualties and environmental costs of American expansion. Offering little glory, these interpretations of how the West was lost have accented the savagery of American civilization.” …
When we take a more clear-eyed look at the 19th century without applying our preconceptions and prejudices to its way of life, we can still find much to admire from our ancestors.
While the exploits of chiefs and sheriffs and outlaws captured the popular imagination, the overwhelming majority of Americans who headed west in the 1800s were just regular people looking for a better life for themselves and their families. They were motivated by the same desires shared by Europeans who sailed to America in the previous two centuries: to have the freedom to make their own choices; to live on land they could call their own; to trade the disquiet of urban squalor for wide-open spaces.
Westerns may romanticize that colorful period, but they also depict the challenges and dangers of taming a frontier, as shown on shows like Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Tales of Wells Fargo.
Perhaps the traits of these pioneers that we once admired (thankfully, some still do) have fallen out of favor as well: individualism, hard work, courage, respect for law and order, doing more and talking less, earning your own way in this world without expecting a handout but giving one to those in need.
These are the messages instilled in the first generation of television westerns, personified in the old-school chivalry of Hopalong Cassidy, Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) on Gunsmoke, and Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie (Cheyenne).
And if the stories sometimes played like something we just saw on another series, a charismatic lead could make sitting through the same adventure more enjoyable: Chuck Connors in The Rifleman; Ty Hardin in Bronco; James Drury in The Virginian; Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive; Robert Culp in Trackdown; John Smith and Robert Fuller in Laramie.
We should be able to acknowledge the harsh reality of a less-enlightened time, but that does not negate the bravery of those who set out west in search of a brighter future, the hardships they endured, or the accomplishments they achieved despite those challenges.
And cowboys are just cool. Always have been, always will be.
You can purchase When Television Brought Us Together by David Hofstede on Amazon.