Not to be confused with that eatin' place, Judge George Hatch finds this "Best Western" to be a brainy feast for the eyes and ears.
Our reviews of Have Gun -- Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume 2 (published March 10th, 2011), Have Gun -- Will Travel: The Second Season (published November 30th, 2005), and Have Gun -- Will Travel: The Final Season, Volumes 1 and 2 (published July 13th, 2013) are also available.
"I'd like you to take a look at this gun. The balance is excellent and the trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. If you look carefully at the barrel you'll see the lines of the rifling, a rarity in a hand weapon. This gun was handcrafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I mean to use it. Would you care for a demonstration?"—Paladin, Have Gun, Will Travel
A "paladin" was originally one of the 12 knights in attendance to King Charlemagne, but the term has been modernized and now signifies anyone championing a noble cause. Those who grew up in the 1950s and '60s will remember Richard Boone's Paladin as an intellectual gunslinger, a man who offered his services with the legendary "Have Gun, Will Travel" business card. Once a week, Boone's Paladin took leave of his sophisticated lifestyle and luxurious San Francisco surroundings to become "a knight without armor in a savage land," validating his personal code of ethics with aggressive and surprisingly insightful solutions. Appropriately, Paladin chose "a chess knight of silver as his badge of trust," a symbol embossed on the side of his holster and prominently displayed in the opening segment of each episode. One of the most versatile of chess pieces, the knight can maneuver unexpectedly, avoiding and eliminating obstacles to claim its designated square. Paladin had all those moves mastered and had no qualms about using lethal backup when forced to improvise. By logic or lead, Paladin always prevailed.
Facts of the Case
In television's Golden Age, westerns were as popular as sitcoms and in 1959 there were 48 of them airing on a weekly basis. For four years in a row Have Gun, Will Travel claimed the No. 3 spot behind Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, while other shows like Rawhide and Yancy Derringer rounded out the Top Ten. What set Have Gun apart, however, was the dichotomy of its main character and the fact that this was a one-man show. As described by his creators, Sam Rolfe and Guy Meadow, Paladin was "a Renaissance man" determined to rekindle the genteel code of medieval gallantry in a new West still reeling with post-Civil War crises. He was a cultured West Point graduate, with a distinguished war record and extremely sophisticated tastes. Paladin was a gourmet, a connoisseur of fine wine and cigars, an accomplished classical pianist, and a proponent of the Arts. Though he never passed up a high-stakes poker game, he preferred playing chess—even with himself, when he couldn't find a capable opponent. He was welcomed and respected by international royalty and American Indian tribes alike. Being a student of literature, history, and comparative religions, he was fond of quoting poets, philosophers, Shakespeare, and the Bible.
Paladin leased a permanent suite in San Francisco's opulent Hotel Carlton and always dressed-to-the-nines in the dandified fashions of the time. When he wasn't whispering "sweet nothings" to equally refined ladies in the hotel's lobby, he scanned newspapers for articles about people in desperate situations; then forwarded his business card, making himself available for a fee of $1,000. With a startling change in appearance and attitude, Paladin rode out alone every week, a good-guy dressed in black, confronting clients of questionable integrity, and criminals with motives that often forced him to reassess situations from their point of view. At a time when other television westerns relied on ensemble casts, each with personal quirks and diverse back stories (ensuring that viewers who didn't like one of them would find another interesting enough to keep tuning in), Have Gun, Will Travel introduced a single, multi-faceted character with a premise that guaranteed dynamic television viewing.
Paramount Home Video presents all 39 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel: The Complete First Season (1957-1958) in a streamlined boxed set, with six discs efficiently packaged in nifty Thinpak keep cases. When Columbia released their VHS "Collector's Edition" set of this series in 1995, they chose to start with an episode from the last season; "Genesis," which detailed Paladin's origins. Paramount Home Video, however, has taken the much-appreciated approach of presenting the episodes in chronological order, allowing new viewers to become acquainted with Paladin at the same pace as that of the original audience. For those wanting a quick take on Paladin—illuminating details about this character accumulated over the six seasons—Paramount has wisely included background information (a lengthy extra on the first disc) to fill you in on his curricula vitae and "rap sheet."
Each episode runs about 26 minutes and is laced with sharp dialogue both colorful—"I know 11 men who tried to outdraw him and now they'll wearin' marble hats."—and thought-provoking—"Shoot now or hang later, what's the difference?" "That's an interesting question, Sheriff, 'What's the difference between murder and justice?'" The extras for each episode are accessible from a terrific animated menu, highlighted by Bernard Hermann's theme. They include cast biographies and fascinating background information about each of the following episodes:
Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) was a regular contributor to the show and felt that "each episode of Have Gun, Will Travel should be based on a premise that could only be dealt with by a man as knowledgeable as Paladin." Roddenberry's first episode, "The Great Mohave Chase," centered on a little known fact about the failed attempt of the U.S. Cavalry to establish a Desert Camel Corps in the 1850s. (The imported camels were eventually turned loose with some still being spotted as late as 1902.) The culturally diverse Paladin uses his knowledge of camels to outsmart Billy Joe Kane, a gamesman who claims no one can avoid capture by his posse in the Mohave Desert "where the sun is so bright you can see it with your eyes closed." Paladin even knows how to properly mount a camel by saying, "Kush! Kush!" and getting it to kneel. Upon his arrival in the town of Mohave, he learns that Kane also holds the water rights to the surrounding area and is bilking the locals by selling it for a dollar a gallon. Raising the stakes of the wager beyond Kane's financial limits, Paladin pressures him into putting up the rights as collateral. By the end of the episode, Paladin has taught Kane a lesson in greed and delivered the water rights to the open market.
A camel race surprisingly appears in the opening scene of Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and one wonders if he got this oddball idea from Roddenberry. Peckinpah was scripting television westerns at the time including Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. He co-wrote "The Singer," (episode 22) which is included in this package. Twilight Zone regulars Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson also contributed scripts as did Bruce Geller of Mission Impossible.
While producers were scrambling to entice ticket-buyers into their theaters, Have Gun, Will Travel brought a new kind of naturalism right into their living room. Rather than rely on traditional indoor landscapes and reconstructed sets on studio back lots, the outdoor scenes of Have Gun, Will Travel were shot on-location in Lone Pine, California and Bend, Oregon. Andrew V. McLaglen directed most of the episodes of the first season, and together with cinematographer, William Margulies, they concentrated more western authenticity into a half-hour than any other show of the time
The new weekly casts included genre staples like Denver Pyle, Claude Akins, Strother Martin, and R. G. Armstrong, while introducing newcomers such as Angie Dickenson (Dressed to Kill, Point Blank), Jack Lord (Dr. No and TV's long-running Hawaii Five-O), Janice Rule (The Swimmer, 3 Women), Charles Bronson (Death Wish, The Dirty Dozen) and Warren Oates (The Hired Hand, The Wild Bunch).
It was Richard Boone, however, who carried the show. One of Hollywood's most versatile actors, he played Pontius Pilate in The Robe (1953), a year before starring as Dr. Konrad Styner in the groundbreaking TV series Medic; a show that paved the way for Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and today's ER. Immediately following Have Gun, Boone launched one of the most innovative, controversial, and sadly, ill-fated television productions of the decade, The Richard Boone Show—an anthology series with a rotating cast of repertory actors including Robert Blake (In Cold Blood, Lost Highway), and Harry Morgan (MASH). Two of Boone's last films were Michael Winner's remake of The Big Sleep (1978) and the cult favorite, Winter Kills (1979) directed by William Richert.
Richard Boone channeled Paladin's sophisticated soigné and intellectual menace into one of television's most charismatic and distinctive western icons. His husky authoritative voice-overs were just as intimidating as Paladin's physical on-screen presence. Each episode of Have Gun, Will Travel opened with a close-up Paladin's knighted leather holster. He drew and cocked his pistol, pointed it directly at the camera and delivered a quote from the episode. You'll shiver in your boots, listening to some of his threats and hair-raising demands:
♠ "This gun says there'll be no lynching here. There's earth enough to bury every man who comes to me with a rope."
♠ "I've been offered a dozen good ways to get myself killed since I entered this town. Now I'm going to make a few offers myself."
♠ "Sit down, gentlemen, and sit still. I've come to order a coffin, for the first one of you that makes a move."
♠ "The greatest calamities in history were made by words said in anger. If you can't back it up, don't speak in anger."
♠ "Ambition in a man without morality is a dangerous thing. You had to own something important…even if you had to murder to get it."
♠ "I rode out here to bring you back. Don't reach for that weapon. Guns are my business."
Bernard Herrmann's percussive opening theme is every bit as memorable as those from Dragnet and Law and Order. That theme is prominent in the animated menu and I confess that several times I've listened that menu "play" in the background until the DVD timer shut it down. "The Ballad of Paladin," written by Johnny Western, Boone, and Sam Rolfe (and sung by Western), became a hit single. The theme and premise of the show are neatly condensed into a few simple lyrics:
Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man.
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire head's the calling wind.
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.
"Paladin, Paladin Where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.
The black-and-white transfers are generally consistent in quality, throughout all 39 episodes. There's the expected speckling in the bracketed credit sequences, but otherwise the images have crisp detail and excellent contrast—especially effective in the outdoor sequences where I was expecting some black or whiteout. Even in long shots, Paladin's man-in-black stands out against the darkest nighttime mountain range and the blindingly bright desert sand. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is good with easy-to-hear dialogue that is only occasionally overwhelmed by the score.
Have Gun, Will Travel is a genuine iconic western from television's Golden Age. It was an alternative to the boilerplate TV shoot-'em-ups, centering instead on a lone gunslinger who was proficient with his pistol, as well as insightful in exploring and reconciling moral and social issues. That's not to say the show short-changed viewers in the action department. Along with The Untouchables, Have Gun was challenged by pressure groups for it's prime-time violent content—though by today's standards you won't find anything shocking here. What you will discover, however, are 39 half-hour dramas with more emotional punch and psychological complexity than most of today's run-of-the-mill, empty-hearted television mini-series.
Not guilty! Paladin is free to roam for another five seasons, discerning and dispensing frontier justice as he sees fit.
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