A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

TV westerns offer myths, heroes, certainties

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 21, 22 or 23

After years of my late mom teasing me about asking – as a four year old – why TV never showed Hopalong Cassidy going to the bathroom, I realized I’d eventually accepted and embraced cowboy fantasies instead of Western facts.

This week, west-central Illinois actor and TV host James Wilhelm (from WTVP-TV 47’s “Illinois Adventures”) appears at the Apollo Theater in downtown Peoria in a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: My Side of The Story” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 Sunday afternoon.

Also this week, a six-part docudrama series titled “Gunslingers” premiered on the American Heroes Channel (formerly the Military Channel), airing at 9 Sunday nights, repeating at midnight those nights and available in some form online.

Both shows stress the historical truth and “real story” behind the icons we’re familiar with.

Again, I now prefer the myths – just as I’d rather read various adventures about King Arthur and his Round Table, Ulysses or samurai, pirates or Vikings, and “1001 Arabian Nights” or assorted Native American warriors – and even “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and Peorian Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” stories – to pedestrian tales of primitive bowmen, Dark Ages kings, ruthless barbarians, etc.

Escape? Maybe, although the feeling of sanctuary comes closer to the feeling.

"Gunslingers” tries to immerse viewers in the real backgrounds of historic figures and their conflicts, and is an ambitious, interesting undertaking. Besides Sunday’s episode (“Wyatt Earp: The Tombstone Vendetta”) the series will focus on “Billy the Kid: The Phantom of Lincoln County” (July 27), “Jesse James: The South's Last Rebel” (Aug. 3), “Wild Bill Hickok: Marksman – and Marked Man” (Aug. 10), “John Wesley Hardin: The Dark Heart of Texas” (Aug. 17), and “Tom Horn: Grim Reaper of the Rockies” (Aug. 24).

Similarly, Wilhelm is sure to recount Wyatt Earp’s roots in Monmouth, run-ins with the law in Peoria, and more mundane, if entertaining, experiences in Henry, Beardstown and, yes, the Wild West.

Westerns are one of a handful of genuine American contributions to popular culture, including jazz and rock ’n’ roll, comic books and Hollywood. But when TV expanded in the early 1950s, singing cowboys and dance-hall girls (who rarely danced), rustlers and ranchers, railroad crooks and horse thieves, outlaws and lawmen, gunmen and gamblers, Apache renegades and Sioux braves all filled the country’s living-room screens.

Local stations got in on the act; Quincy TV had afternoon kids-show hosts Sagebrush Sandy and Cactus Jim.

After dime novels, movies first lay the groundwork, of course, from Bronco Billy, William S. Hart and Tom Mix to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Randolph Scott. Personal cinema favorites: “High Noon,” “The Searchers” and “Shane,” plus director John Ford’s classic “cavalry trilogy”: “Fort Apache,” “Rio Grande” and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”

But television is where westerns really found their audience, young and old, and rode – spurs flashing – into my heart. There they remain, as I retreat to the refuge of stark contrasts of black-and-white TV’s depiction of good and evil. Occasionally, I start to watch “Stagecoach” or “Red River” or hour-long episodes of “Cheyenne,” “Maverick” or “Rawhide,” but I long for faster action, simpler plots, sheriffs and marshals triumphing over corrupt bankers or arrogant wagon masters.

The half-hour programs are the best: “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and “Bat Masterson,” “Lawman” and “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Marshall Dillon,” “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” and “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Range Rider,” “Buffalo Bill Jr.” and “Broken Arrow,” “Yancy Derringer” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Tales of Wells Fargo” and “The Rebel” …

There are contradictions, sure. They’re wholesome yet violent, idealistic but crude, a bit too “male, pale and stale” for contemporary audiences, although somehow universal.

More than anything except family and church, TV westerns provide me a comfort zone, a fantasy with certainty, like Camelot with Galahad and Uruk with Gilgamesh.

Myths of heroes overcoming the odds remain more desirable than ordinary guys with feet of clay and hearts of stone.

A 19th century journalist said it best in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” – “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Happy trails!

[PICTURED: Quincy TV's afternoon kids show host Cactus Jim, played by Dick Moore.]

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