Some of my readers are already familiar with my writings on Hollywood, such as on the mystery of the 1947 Best Picture Oscar, the suppression of It’s a Wonderful Life, the real reason for the Golden Age of Television, and the “lost” TV anthology dramas of the 1950s.
There was always one minor mystery that nagged at me, though—why there had been such a craze for westerns during the 1950s. Hollywood produced more than 1,000 western movies during that decade.1,2
But it was the abundance of Westerns on television that puzzled me most. In 1959 alone, 30 westerns were featured in prime-time. This meant that on any given evening, you were apt, on average, to have about four westerns to choose from. And of course, there were only three networks back then—NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Here are the 30. Some are considered classics; others are long forgotten.
Have Gun—Will Travel
Tales of Wells Fargo
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
Wanted: Dead or Alive
Law of the Plainsman
The Man from Blackhawk
Hotel de Paree
Broken Arrow (repeat episodes)
Why so many westerns? I didn’t believe it was from public demand, because, as I pointed out in my post on the “Golden Age,” it has really always been agendas that have driven network programming, not “public opinion.” Of course, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t cancel a show if it had rotten ratings.
For a while, I wondered if the overflow of westerns was in some roundabout way intended to prepare us for the Vietnam War, but that didn’t really resonate.
I think I’ve found the answer. Of course I may be wrong.
Television has been intended to weaken our respect for the Ten Commandments. It has done so progressively, “boiling the frog,” over the years.
In the modern world, if you have an enemy, you can’t just go and shoot him. You usually have to try to resolve your differences in civilized ways.
But if you watch the classic westerns, the typical ending is a showdown—a shootout with the good guy killing the bad guy. Sometimes multiple bad guys would be killed. And of course, the bad guy would usually kill a few innocent people before he finally “got his.”
And anyone from my generation will recall the countless Indians being shot off their horses as they rode in ineffective circles around wagon trains.
I believe the basic purpose of the westerns craze was to de-sensitize the public to killing, to weaken respect for the Sixth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Killing was made laudable. Of course, in the film or TV show, the killing would be made to look justifiable. And there is no question that, in real life, weapons sometimes have to be used in self-defense. Let’s just say the westerns went way overboard. Not that there wasn’t real lawlessness in the Old West, but this made it the perfect venue for dramatization of violence.
There were other genres, of course, that included killing, such as police shows, but on TV I think westerns won the body count prize.
During the sixties, westerns largely fell out of vogue. By 1969, by my count, the number had dropped from 30 to 6. Westerns had served their purpose, and the networks shifted from attacking the Sixth Commandment to the Seventh—“Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”—as the “new morality” of the “swinging sixties” was to be normalized for the public.