Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Have Gun - Will Travel (or, the Antihero)

The bride got me Season 3 of Have Gun--Will Travel for Christmas, and I am LOVING it!  Plus, our cable provider carries the Encore Western channel, which has also begun to show episodes.

Ever learn about the concept of the antihero back in literature class?  Antiheros were BIG back in the 1970s when I was in college but I seldom hear about the concept any more today.  Nevertheless, a quick Google reveals that some univesities still teach such a class--see Dartmouth for one example. 

Anyway, back to the concept of the antihero: think Rambo and you pretty much have it. 

Wikipedia tells us that an antihero is "...generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero, and is in some instances its antithesis."

Well, Richard Boone, playing Paladin in the show, is just a more genteel Rambo but still embodies the antihero concept.  His "normal" persona is that of an educated, suave gentleman, dressed in fine clothes, living in San Francisco.  Paladin seems to spend his days scouring the newspapers for stories of the downtrodden, or someone in distress.  He then sends the needy person his terse, 8-word business card, and the person responds by hiring the gunfighter.  Typically the next shot shows Paladin--this time dressed all in black and riding a black horse--arriving at the place where he is needed for a showdown with the "bad" guy(s).

Not every episode contains a gunfight, although many do, and Paladin is a quick draw.  But frequently he solves the problem without resorting to violence, often by convincing people just to do what is right rather than what is expedient.

Paladin is a man with no first name, a good guy with a dark side.  He is a hired gunfighter who does what's right and helps the downtrodden.  As the lead-in to the show, Paladin always draws his gun and gives a short hard-ass speech as a teaser to what's about to happen.  The show is replete with situational ethics and moral dilemmas, and sometimes is unclear as to who really is the good guy.

Maybe I'm nostalgic for the formative days of my youth, but I love this show and can't get enough of it right now.  Perhaps it's the appeal of ambiguity and the parallels with contemporary life, which seems increasingly fraught with moral dilemmas and ethical conundrums.

No UlraRunning connection here--again, I just love Westerns!

(Photos taken by me from my TV)


  1. One of the NPR stations in DC does "The Big Broadcast" every Sunday night for 4 hours, playing old radio programs. My dad grew up with most of them, and one of my brothers is a big fan of old radio, including Have Gun - Will Travel. I'm not sure I've ever seen the TV series. Still, while Paladin is faced with tough moral situations, he's actively trying to do the right thing, isn't he? And as you note, he doesn't always use violence. He's more in the good-guy-outside-the-law mode, yes?

    On a related note, I'm often struck by how much the neocons and their ilk worship the Jack Bauer-Rambo model, or really someone much more reckless and destructive. Did they never encounter that American archetype, the reluctant gunfighter, like Shane, or John Wayne in many a John Ford western? What of the moral maturity of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? Some later shows and movies, including Kung Fu, embodied the same ethos, and it's still around. However, among the Beltway political crowd, there's a huge group who view being "tough" as being cruel, bullying, and vicious - and see diplomacy as an inherent failure, weak, feminine, etc. It's a twisted image of masculinity, very different from the reluctant gunfighter model of being restrained, calm, just and humble, rather than being eager to be cruel. I suspect that attitude of 'I'm no hero, I'm just doing an unpleasant job that needs to be done' might well have been bolstered by WWII vets. Anyway, it's something I've been mulling for some time now. The neocons are closer to Jack Palance in Shane - if he kidnapped and tortured people.

  2. Great comment, and love your analogy: "good-guy-outside-the-law," though Paladin takes that route only after ordinary recourse is stymied.

    To add to your examples, how about Gary Cooper in "High Noon," doing what's right at great personal risk, or the original "3:10 to Yuma"?

  3. ...though Paladin takes that route only after ordinary recourse is stymied.

    Yeah, that makes sense, especially for the era... As opposed to eagerly torturing someone at the first (and slightest) opportunity. Sigh.

    Yeah, I was thinking of High Noon and Gary Cooper, too (also The Friendly Persuasion). Cooper's definitely got some complexity to him. Supposedly, High Noon was partially a commentary on McCarthyism. I've heard John Wayne called throwing down the badge at the end 'the most un-American thing I've ever seen' and imdb has more on that stuff. One of the refreshing things about High Noon for me is that when Cooper's character knows he's been left out to hang solo, he's not stupid enough to try to take on all three in the open. Lon Chaney is great. Supposedly Leone's three outlaws at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West was in part an homage to High Noon. If you ever read the High Noon screenplay, it's got these long character descriptions like a Shaw play. I need to see it again; it's been a while.

    Alas, I've actually yet to see the original 3:10 to Yuma and several other classic westerns - unfortunately, I don't currently have TCM - but I've seen most of John Ford's and Leone's (multiple times), and some of those by Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks... Maybe at some point you can make an Essential Western Viewing List.