Paramount // 1962 // 495 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // March 10th, 2011
Paladin is always up for the job.
The liner notes for this DVD package claim that Paladin, the protagonist of this series, is a "traditional hero." Actually, that's not true at all. He's really more of an untraditional antihero in the mold of TV characters who would come in later years on shows far more controversial and uncompromising than Have Gun -- Will Travel. Paladin deserves credit for helping pave the way for other characters, but that doesn't mean that Have Gun -- Will Travel is worth going out of your way for.
In the late 1800s, Paladin (Richard Boone, The Robe) is a gunslinger who makes himself available for hire to anyone who needs him. From his home in San Francisco, he publishes an ad promising to solve problems using his skills with his six-shooter. As he travels around California squaring off against foes and even friends, however, he discovers that some cases and stories are much more complex than they appear. This three-disc set compiles the last nineteen episodes of the series' fifth and final season.
Have Gun -- Will Travel is a show that's easy to admire but hard to actually enjoy. In many ways, it is very much ahead of its time, but because it's hamstrung by the restrictions on content and language of the early 1960s, it ends up feeling compromised and tentative. As much as it pushes the boundaries of what was acceptable storytelling in its time, Have Gun-Will Travel is in many ways an unsatisfying experience.
Part of the reason is that Paladin is a genuinely difficult protagonist to get a handle on. It's not that he's a mercenary, or even that he's a well-educated and literate one -- it's that he's so insular that it's hard to identify with him. For a movie protagonist, that can be an advantage; consider Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. For a TV series, that becomes increasingly hard to watch. It's one thing for a show to be built around an antihero, like The Sopranos, Sons Of Anarchy, and The Shield. Those shows are deliberately constructed to disclose the inner workings of subcultures and worlds that are arcane or little understood. Have Gun, by contrast, isn't meant to be obscure; Paladin is supposed to be the protagonist that the audience is meant to identify with. Instead, too often he's merely a cipher. Boone's low-key, minimalist performance is fascinating to watch once or twice but several episodes in a row he becomes downright impenetrable. For a TV series, that's not a good quality to have.
This impenetrability hurts the show in other ways. Paladin's motivations are sometimes obscure and ill-defined and when he changes sides, it ends up as something of a plot convenience rather than a well-developed piece of characterization. In "The Exiles," Paladin is hired to return some valuable bonds from deposed aristocracy in Mexico to the new revolutionary government that could use them. For a while, he agrees that the bonds should be transferred, but once he meets the exiled aristocrats, he joins their team. When the general who hired him in the first place finds them, he switches back and forth, with the only caveat being that he doesn't want violence, which is kind of a strange viewpoint for a hired gunslinger to take. Similarly, in "The Coming of the Tiger," Paladin is hired by a Japanese émigré to track down a pair of Japanese spies sent to provoke a war with the United States. When the émigré's U.S.-born son tires of the racist treatment he has received and attempts to switch sides, Paladin's reaction is downright confusing. Does he empathize with the son? Does he understand why the son might consider switching sides? It's hard to say, because the dialogue is so oblique. How exactly Paladin resolves the issue is impossible to say -- it just resolves itself somehow. Paladin may be a man of few words, but those words should at least be reasonably intelligible to viewers.
Which leads to the biggest reason Have Gun-Will Travel is so unsatisfying: it just can't cut as deep as it clearly wants to, because TV standards of the era were so restrictive. Thus, the depiction of racism in "The Coming of the Tiger" is pretty whitewashed (it mostly boils down to some cowboys harassing a young Japanese girl), and the language that Paladin and the Japanese use to discuss it is so neutered that it's hard to really feel anything about it. Similarly, in "Alice" (written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), Paladin is hired to track down a missing ranch owner who ran one town's biggest saloon. Her disappearance is linked to the town's increasing refusal to accept its rowdy past, but once the secrets she keeps are revealed, they're actually rather tame. What's more, Paladin's solution is even tamer: hugging and talking. Maybe if the series aired today, Paladin would be more of a bleak and cynical antihero and the problems he solves would be depicted far more realistically and honestly. Instead, the writing is too watered-down and clinical to really give these episodes the bite they should have. Why set up such complex situations and a gun-slinging protagonist if the resolutions end up as so conventional and mild? That lack of creative freedom is ultimately the biggest failing of the series.
As for this DVD release, it's decent enough, although CBS/Paramount should be firmly condemned for (yet again) chopping a season into chunks for no other reason than just to maximize profits. The full-screen transfer looks sharp, with little damage and bright tones (the show is in black-and-white but looks crisp nonetheless). The mono mix is solid though unspectacular. You'll hear it fine all right, but it isn't going to dazzle anyone. There are no extras.
There are moments here and there that highlight just how ambitious Have Gun -- Will Travel could be at its best and why it's a shame that it seems so neutered at times. "The Man Who Hits Moonshine" is a look at alcoholism that's surprisingly hard-nosed and unsentimental for its time, offering no easy answers or cheap emotions. Ironically, it's the gunfight and action sequence at the end of the episode that's the least compelling part. Here, Have Gun -- Will Travel proves that it's not a question of just adding more action; the quality of the writing is ambitious enough that it's too bad that it's not allowed to cut as deep as it could. In moments like these, Have Gun -- Will Travel is at least worth a look for fans looking for a more intellectual Western series.
By the standards of TV Westerns, Have Gun -- Will Travel is at least smarter and more complex than most. It's certainly not a mindless action show and it isn't as corny as other series of the era. Still, it doesn't really have much to recommend it to non-Western fans. It's rather tame and not especially compelling. While Paladin is an intriguing concept for a character, he really isn't a particularly well-developed one, mainly because the show wasn't allowed to make him one. Ultimately, only fans who have the show's previous DVD releases should care about this one.
Guilty of not being particularly compelling to non-Western fans.
Review content copyright © 2011 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 495 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated