Incident of the Marathon

I’ve just finished watching the entire first season of Rawhide, so kindly provided to us on hopelessly overpriced vanilla DVD’s where the only special feature on each disc is a text biography on Clint Eastwood.  Thanks, Paramount.  Is that you laughing as you shove deposits into the ATM?


Rawhide launched in 1959 and rapidly became one of our great western shows.  Everybody knows the theme song, of course.  It also launched Eastwood’s career, making him the new blood in the western genre that everyone watched.  This weird, young guy bouncing around for seven years on the cattle trail on CBS each week who, suddenly, shows up in a trilogy of B-movie spaghetti westerns that turn him into an overnight superstar.   Most importantly, Rawhide wasn’t sappy like the other westerns out there – I’m looking at you, Bonanza.

No, Rawhide’s tough and gritty.  A bunch of unhinged cowboys and their psychotic cook dragging 3000 unruly cattle through hard, open country from San Antone up to the railhead in Sedalia, MO.  We get the journeyman routine that television loved to pieces up until the early 80’s, and the typical problems with the usual run of guest stars.  But there aren’t too many happy endings.  All of our main boys need to survive, but each episode has a handful of red shirts just waiting to take an arrow or drown in a stream.  That and they’re all trigger happy.  The show’s set in 1868, and they’re all a bunch of former Confederates who can’t get a job and have a serious chip on their shoulder as to the outcome of the Civil War (Firefly fans will recognize the theme right away).  That’s not really a big thing, though, it just comes up every once in a while.  Gil Favor was a lieutenant in the CSA, but he’s made his peace with the war.  Rowdy Yates spent some time in a Union prison, and he likes to bring that up.  All underlying character things, but having the drovers being a bunch of lunatic former Rebels helps the viewer accept the fact that terrible things are going to happen to them…again and again for 217 cattle-filled episodes.

It’s not just a story convention to have them consistently run into some sort of problem, though.  The show is inspired by the diary of George c. Duffield – which is the only first-hand account from a trail drover.  Duffield and his buddy, Harvey Ray, painfully worked themselves down to Texas where they had the ill-advised idea to take on a herd of cattle and drive it up to Iowa.  The drive lasted from April to September, and Duffield’s diary reads like the annals of hell.  He only had a few hundred cattle by the time he made it home.  “Through hell and high water” is our legacy from that diary.

The whole idea of driving cattle 1500 miles is just a fluke of the war.  It only lasted from the end of the war to the early 1880’s, when the fevered expansion of the railroads caught up with everyone.  The east was pretty shook up after the war, and the railroads in the west had stayed in place during the war years.  Right after the war you see two things – a glut of unemployed soldiers and other disenfranchised freaks heading towards the frontier and a glut of cattle in Texas.  So the ranchers had to get their beef east, which meant driving the goddamned beasts all the way up to Missouri, or wherever the shifting railhead was.  On a clear, easy day when nothing happened, you’d make eight miles.  But those days were rare, if they happened at all.  And there you are with a thousand (or many more) cattle and only a half dozen or so drovers to keep them together and deal with the elements for a months-long run through dry range, swollen rivers, and lawless territory.

Rawhide gets that TV touch, of course.  It’s pretty.  The big stars can get shot as many times as they want and they always walk away by the end of the episode.  Clint’s hair is always beautiful, and we get a bunch of white guys who become embroiled in strange adventures.  Maybe there are Indians, wolves, a town that hates drovers, or maybe Clint falls for a woman.  Women are always evil.  Whenever one shows up in Rawhide, you just know that trouble’s coming down the pike at 100mph. And they sometimes show up like it’s a sci-fi series.  Out in the wilderness – bang! – a woman appears.  Hi guys, can I ride with you a while?  Trail boss Gil Favor never learns that he should say: Fuck, no.

We get plenty of feminism in Rawhide.  Half the women complain that they aren’t equal (it’s 1868, girls!) and the other half, while eye candy, are simply wicked.  On average, there are more strong-willed and indignant women in the 1959 season of Rawhide than we see on TV today.

The show’s formula is simple.  Gil Favor, played by Eric Fleming, is the father figure.  He’s the down to earth, no nonsense, get the job done guy.  Fleming was killed filming a movie in 1966, which resulted in the premature end of Rawhide.  Though I doubt Eastwood would have stuck around much longer, even if the show could have survived.  By 66, though he stuck with Rawhide, he had finished the trilogy with Sergio Leone and was dancing at that super-stardom level.

Eastwood plays Rowdy Yates, a sort of de facto second in charge, even though he’s a brand new hire on his first cattle drive in the pilot episode (by mid season, he’d been with Favor for over a year, and was pretty solidly in place as the number two).  Yates is the good son, in the formula.  He’s Data to Gil Favor’s Picard, except he’s not a stiff-backed geek.  He’s a brawling, gun-crazy psychopath.  A role Eastwood would define up until the 1990’s when he just got too old.

Wishbone, the dangerously crazy cook, is the mother figure.  He’s played by the character actor Paul Brinegar who is a strutting, weird-ass freak if I ever saw one.  Wishbone can’t cook, he gives everyone a hard time (there’s a good chance he’ll pull a gun and make you wonder if this is the episode where Clint Eastwood gets written out) and his whole world view is so weird it can’t be explained away unless you acknowledge what I believe to be a fact:  Rawhide’s writers were all intensely bitter monsters drowning in gin and cocaine.

We get the other good sons – the scout, and the two other named characters who do nothing for the story except to have the occasional line.  The scout, Pete Nolan, is played by singer Sheb Wooley.  He has an inexplicable rivalry with Rowdy Yates and sort of acts as the second son.

With this team, and endless stock footage of a cattle herd (they actually worked with a ranch to make their own stock footage, so you can make it through the entire first season without thinking “I’ve seen that before”), we’re off for adventure, mystery, murder, ghostly riders, and lots and lots of fireside fisticuffs.

Oh, yes, it gets old here and there.  Same old, same old.  Especially when they try to hand a story to one of the second-tier folks because, from the get-go, you want the story to be all Clint Eastwood all the time.  And that’s not just hindsight talking.  Clint made Rawhide his show right out of the gate.  Everyone knew it then when he was a big old nobody.  You can see how this guy was destined for greatness as he struts across soundstage and Arizona desert, outshining the cardboard co-stars, the strictly written Gil Favor, and the lame comic relief.  Paired against a guest star, it was still all Clint.  And the great thing about those old shows was that you knew the guest stars.  It’s not like today where you go, oh, hey, it’s…that guy!  No, you get to see Dr. McCoy, the Skipper… all those guys who would go on with the studio in the 60’s and become cultural icons in other woefully dated TV shows.

How is it possible that some weird ass cowboy show from 1959 can stick with us and not be so repellant that we want to hide the DVD’s from friends and family?  After all, the stories are simple. Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates might get shot up, but they always get back on the trail.  The impossible horrors work themselves out… Or, if they don’t, well, we quietly gloss it over.  1959 was a different world.  Back then, there was a United States of America, and cannibalism wasn’t socially acceptable, like it is today.  As I write this from the Earth colony on Europa, I’m reminded of how innocent we were back then.  And how primitive TV was.  An hour long show in 1959 ran for 50 minutes.  In 2007, it’ll make 40-42 minutes.  So you get these old shows that have an enormous block of time – almost an entire act, during which they can build up characters, or advance the plot into a fine, intricate story without having to create a multi-part serial.  The competition is low – Rawhide was CBS, and all they had to worry about were two other networks.  You’d get yourself a winning show, and you could just hunker down and go on and on and on.  That’s why you get things like Gunsmoke running for 20 years.  Rawhide itself – seven seasons driving cattle back and forth along the same 1500 mile stretch?  You can only swallow so much… But all of the shows could really draw out well past their freshness date because you didn’t have half a dozen competing networks and the teeming cable/satellite barbarians at the gates.  It allows for some TLC from the writers and producers.

Then there’s money.  A certain, strange humility on the part of the actors.  Rawhide opens with the theme song, but no title sequence besides the name of the show.  Fleming, Eastwood and all the others show up in the end credits.  They’re working a job, and they’re trying to do it well.  Money is also absent from the production itself.  Rawhide, for the time, has extraordinarily high production values, but the natural limitations of the time mean that you can’t wow the audience with super gunfights and the general glitzy computer wildness of modern TV.  The poor bastards had to act their way through the story.

Then throw in the generic innocence of the Old West that was the standard of the genre up until, well, Eastwood created Ye Olde West Generation Two – everybody hangs, everyone’s bad, and people shoot revolvers really fast (Eastwood was mastering that speedy revolver trick in Rawhide, so it’s always thrilling when he freaks out and gets to fire a volley into somebody).  Back before that, the west was John Wayne.  We’d get dark stories, but it was playground stuff.  Cowboys and Indians.  You’d get your The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon stuff, and a few other artistic oddities telling deeper tales than the genre expected, but, overall, it was the Duke, pilgrim, and that’s the west.  Birthing sappy shows, or ridiculous do-gooder shows like Cheyenne.

By the 70’s, the Old West had become gritty and scary.  Quite a fascinating evolution: From the cavalry riding over the hill in the 50’s amidst cheers from the audience to Deadwood in the 21st century.  That’s quite a long ride in just 60 years.  A total sea-change for the genre where most of TV’s standbys – sci-fi, sit-coms, drama – have never really changed in all that time, except to reflect minor social progress.

Rawhide was the first baby-step towards that evolving new western.  It occasionally borrowed pages from the early era of Gunsmoke – a woeful, lost America suffering under the thumb of progress – but mainly had to deal with just how dreadful it was to be a trail drover.   An unglamorous old west.  $100 for six months of hard riding, with death around every corner, to deliver cows that averaged $30 a head.  Hard to tell what’s more valuable – the men or the cattle?  Drowning, rustling, anthrax, heat death, rogue Indians, criminals, stampeding… You name it.  There’s not much room for glittering happiness.  Just eat the dust, stink of the trail, and imagine what you’ll do with your earnings if you make it to Sedalia.  No amount of glitz can make that story happy.  So, though these are all strong 1959 people acting out scripts that speak from a different America, a forgotten world left far behind, the show is one of those stunning gems in television history that, somehow, manages to speak clearly and still entertain from the haunted black & white past.