There was a time when westerns were a staple of the small screen. Each week a different tale of the old west unfolded before a number of viewers that has seemed to dwindle of late. Be it a secret service agent for President Grant or a riverboat gambler, the variety of westerns on TV was great and helped jump start the careers of many famous movie stars. Perhaps the most notable example of this was Clint Eastwood who began his career on RAWHIDE.
Previous seasons have come out on DVD in the past and they've just added the first volume of season 4. Having not seen the earlier ones, I can only tell you that this one comes off as the perfect example of the early TV western. The stories are simple yet deep at the same time. The acting isn't nearly as bad as some comedies seen on TV right now and the ideas presented are well thought out and valuable for a younger viewing audience while remaining entertaining for adults as well.
The idea behind the series was the cowpoke, the drover who rounded up cattle and delivered them to market. Along the way they ran into problems on the trail, made problems of their own at saloons along the way and became an American icon of what a real man was all about.
Eric Fleming starred as Gil Favor, the trail boss that brought together this rag tag group of cowpokes to run the herd. A fair man and a fair boss, he kept them out of trouble while keeping the cows rounded up. His right hand man, his trail boss, was Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), a young man who enjoys the life he leads and helps keep the men in line. At the same time he isn't averse to joining in on the fun when they hit town though. Rounding out the three main characters of the series was Paul Brinegar as Wishbone, the cook of the outfit. Making sure the men had hot meals and hot coffee, Wishbone was also the conscious of the outfit too, often letting folks know what was really going on beneath the actions of one man or another.
This time around the series begins with the men gathering to take on a herd of beef to market. But by the first episode they've lost the contract and are on their own. With enough money to start out with and a plan to gather lose steers along the way, Gil recruits the men to work for him, rounding up cattle and joining with another group on the trail. This time it's their own cattle going to market.
As things would have it while on the trail stories start making their way into a simple cattle drive. In one episode one of the drover's is almost hanged by his own brother, a judge. In another a wagon train master who deserted his group and was the sole survivor of an Indian attack must face the mother of one of the victims as well as a mean partner of the same deceased man. Civil War spies, a circus, a Christmas episode and more work their way into the stories on the trail and make this a series that showed the Wild West for the hard work it was but also offered a ride that wasn't boring either.
In black and white (come on don't be prejudiced against this format...shows and movies were once made that way so get over it), the series is well shot and well acted by all. Some notable guest stars make their way here as well, some stars before and some later, including Ralph Bellamy and Darren McGavin just to name two.
There are no shows like this on today. As I said at the start, the idea was simple, but stories wound up covering more than you would bargain for in a western. And yet they told a story that wasn't preaching about anything or condemning anyone while at the same time entertaining. Yes, we could use a show like this today.
The western is all but gone these days not just from TV but in films as well. Even when movies like TOMBSTONE, SILVERADO and 3:10 TO YUMA do big business, it's as if no one notices. Perhaps one day Hollywood will realize that westerns can offer the escape today that they did way back when. After all, who would have thought that a movie about pirates would span three sequels? Until that day arrives we will have to be content sitting back and watching the classics like this one. And with RAWHIDE you can't get much better.