Paramount // 1962 // 812 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 13th, 2013
A knight without armor in a savage land
When the Western was big-time TV fodder, from the earliest days of the medium to the dawn of the Peace generation, the players were all the same. We had good guys and bad guys, black hats and white hats, the influx of "injuns" and their implied "savagery" and the salesman slick carpetbaggers who roamed beyond their Eastern borders to fleece the clueless country folk out of their pioneering spirit. Toss in the occasional cattle drive, a strict moral code, and "the new sheriff in town" and you had the premise for at least half (if not more) of the 50-plus shows that ran during its broadcast dominance. But one oater would have none of it. It didn't follow some glorious gunslinger. Instead, it centered on a man only known as Paladin (Richard Boone, Hec Ramsey) who lived in a fancy San Francisco hotel and indulged in the decidedly finer things in life (food, drink, opera, and literature). Using a simple calling card with the image of a chess piece (a knight) and the line "Have Gun...Will Travel," this stunning contrast to the usual sharpshooting stuff would offer up his services to those in need. Always trying to avoid violence where he could, Paladin became a symbol for something above and beyond the Wild West ideal.
Surprisingly, the show was a hit. The first season of half hour shows was the fourth most popular TV broadcast on 1957-58. It would move up to the number three slot for '59, '60, and '61. But when first run movies came to sets around the country, Have Gun faltered. By the sixth and final collection of episodes, the bloom was off the desert rose. Richard Boone wanted to do something different and a certain experimental ennui set in. There was a certain going through the motions until the series was finally canned. Of the 32 episodes offered during that final run (that's right, 32), only a few are fascinating. The rest keep the HGWT set-up well intact to make sure any lingering fan gets their gunslinger money's worth. In fact, the only reason anyone should have kept watching was to see Richard Boone in action. A fascinating actor mostly forgotten today (he died in 1981 at age 63), his career path was highlighted by several memorable character turns, his experimental TV series The Richard Boone Show, and other oddities. He was even the voice of Smaug in Rankin-Bass's beloved animated take on The Hobbit. A graduate of the Actors Studio, he was all serious Method process, and it really shows here.
Without going into massive detail regarding the 30-plus episodes available here (spread out over several discs on two different DVD packages), there are a couple of go-to moments that clearly defined Have Gun's legacy. The first, and perhaps most often quoted, is the installment entitled "Genesis." Directed and co-starring William Conrad (Cannon), it's Paladin's origin backstory, his first taste of being a hired hitman. In the narrative, he is paid to take out another man named Smoke. The intriguing thing is that Boone plays both roles, giving a nice symmetry to how the character came into being. Gene Roddenberry also cut his creative teeth on the series, and his efforts here ("Taylor's Woman," Marshall of Sweetwater," "Trial at Tablerock," "Cage at McNaab," and "The Savages") represent some of his patented philosophizing-and the series' best. Elsewhere, numerous guest appearances from future famous faces highlight the show's stature. We see Robert Blake, Richard Jaeckel, Duane Eddy, Lee Van Cleef, Deforest Kelly, Charles Bronson, Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Kennedy among many, many others.
The bottom line remains that, no matter how novel or inventive it (or it thought it) was, Have Gun -- Will Travel is still planted solidly in its era. It's a Western, working the pop culture clime for all the genre could endure. In some ways, a show like this indicates the problem the format had. Unless you took the material way outside its comfort zone -- which the Spaghetti Westerns would eventually do -- everything had a veneer of vague familiarity. The half hour conceit may have made the show a bit less lugubrious, but for the most part, Have Gun emphasizes the already known quantities of the oater. Boone and the baffling character he played might have made for a slight deviation from the norm, but in the end, if you've seen one Wild West shoot 'em up, you've seen them all. Have Gun did do something different with it, however, and deserves kudos for bucking the trends.
As for the DVD presentation itself (again, the final season is split over two volumes to accommodate the number of episodes), Paramount has finally done the series proud. Previous releases have had a slightly sloppy feel, the lack of sharp, 1.33:1 full frame black and white imagery belying a desire by the studio to do things on the cheap. Here, the transfer is splendid, remastered with deep in contrasts and heavy on the detail. You can actually see the craggy surface of Boone's weathered face here. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Mono mix maintains a nice balance between dialogue and musical underscoring. There is nary a moment of distortion or overmodulation to be heard. Sadly, for fans of the series, there are no bonus features offered on either DVD set.
It's almost impossible to dismiss Have Gun -- Will Travel as something in the same superficial league as The Rifleman, or The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, or Bat Masterson. It tried to move beyond the basics of the genre to redefine the Western hero, and for the most part it succeeded. However, by this time in its run, the audience no longer cared. A lack of interest may have helped bring the series to a surreal close, but it also underscored the glut of horse operas out there. Have Gun -- Will Travel will always be one of the better takes on the archetype. Sadly, it's also saddled with many of the genre's flaws as well.
Not guilty, but not required watching. For fans and Western completists only.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 812 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated