Don’t you love it when something you haven’t seen since you were a kid turns out to be every bit as good as you remembered it, when you finally see it again, 40 or 50 years later? (And don’t think I ever dreamed I would one day be writing that sentence!)
As a boy, one of my all-time favorite TV shows was Wagon Train. It had a long run, 1957-65, and such a strong, elastic format, that it even survived the death of its star, Ward Bond, in 1960.
How could it miss? You start with a bunch of people from all different backgrounds, stuck with one another on a wagon train; and the train has to cross up to two thousand miles of dangerous, untamed country.
Add to that the truly brilliant concept of focusing each episode on a different person, and enlisting the best actors in America to play those characters. The guest star is the top banana in the episode; the regulars are on hand to provide continuity from week to week and to keep the overall story moving. For example, the episode entitled “The Joshua Gilliam Story” stars Dan Duryea as a psychopathic con man posing as a beloved schoolteacher, and joining the wagon train in that disguise.
Imagine a TV show today with guest stars like Bette Davis, Peter Lorre, Ernest Borgnine, Mickey Rooney, Claire Trevor–aw, heck, you can’t even get a feature film with stars like that anymore.
Maybe you think I’m talking through my hat. “C’mon, it’s only a western! Bang, bang, gotcha!” But really–the Wagon Train format allowed the show’s writers to do any kind of story they pleased. It never got stale. Drama, comedy, confrontations with the unknown, psychological study–you’ll find ’em all in this show.
I received for Christmas this year the complete Season 3, 37 episodes, released by Timeless Media Group and available via amazon.com–1,900 minutes of just about everything. The Western setting is just the background: the business at hand is the characters.
And yes, it’s as good as I remember it, if not better. And all done without having people leering at each other before they tear off their clothes to fornicate. You actually have to have a few functioning brain cells to appreciate the sometimes-subtle nuances of a Wagon Train episode.
Ugh–the thought of trying to make this series today, with what we laughingly call “actors,” uttering lines written for them by certified idiots… Fap! Now I’m gonna have bad dreams about that.