Judge Victor Valdivia is known as "The Kentuckian," even though he lives in Arizona and has never been to Kentucky.
One of the first great stories of the American west.
All but forgotten today, The Virginian was one of the most revered and popular western shows of its era. It ran for nine seasons on NBC and featured guest performances from some of the most revered actors of the day, from George C. Scott to Bette Davis. Sadly, the show hasn't been seen for many years but with this new DVD release, fans of classic Westerns can finally view The Virginian, a superbly written series that deserves to be rediscovered.
Facts of the Case
In the 1890s, in the town of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the Virginian (James Drury, Bernardine) is a transplanted settler whose job it is to oversee the Shiloh Ranch for its owner, Judge Henry Garth (Lee J, Cobb, 12 Angry Men). Working alongside ranch hands Trampas (Doug McClure, Out of This World) and Steve (Gary Clarke, Hondo), he keeps the peace and runs the ranch while protecting Judge Garth's teenage daughter Betsy (Roberta Shore, The Shaggy Dog). This set compiles the thirty episodes of show's first season on ten discs. Here are the episodes:
In pure quality, The Virginian deserves to stand in the top rank of TV westerns of the Sixties, alongside Bonanza, Wagon Train, and Gunsmoke. Unlike those shows, however, The Virginian has never really become a pop-culture landmark and is only familiar to TV Western aficionados. The big reason, apparently, is that each episode of The Virginian lasts 75 minutes (or 90 with commercials). This super-size length makes it all but impossible to easily syndicate. It's too big to fit into an hour-long time slot, too short for a two-hour slot, and too irregularly paced to be chopped up into pieces. Consequently, The Virginian hasn't aired regularly on TV for decades, making this DVD release the first time many have seen the show in a long time, if ever.
As it turns out, it's a shame it's taken this long for The Virginian to get its due. While the extended length sometimes means some extraneous scenes, the writing on the show is generally outstanding, without any of the standard clichés that usually accompany Westerns. Judge Garth is usually depicted as a fair and reasonable man, but as the biggest and wealthiest landowner in Medicine Bow, he can sometimes be thoughtless, selfish, and arrogant. In "The Big Deal," his feud with another wealthy landowner (Ricardo Montalban, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) becomes so heated that he ends up endangering the lives of those around him. For his part, the Virginian is smart and sympathetic, but his tendency to jump in and try to solve problems can sometimes get him in trouble. In "The Exiles," the Virginian's attempt to solve a murder involving the judge ends up involving him with a flaky and dangerous lounge singer (Tammy Grimes). The guest characters are also hard to divide into categories. There are no real black hats or white hats; even the most unsympathetic characters are given moments of dignity and even the most likable can turn around and do something indefensible. It's a mark of how complex the writing can be.
Similarly, the storylines themselves are intricate. They aren't necessarily typical Western stories. Some episodes, such as "The Exiles" and "The Executioners," about a man hung for murder who may have been innocent, are mysteries. Others, like "The Big Deal" and "It Tolls for Thee," in which Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) plays a dangerous outlaw looking to kill Judge Garth, are tense thrillers. What's more, they're not nearly as predictable as you might expect. "The Executioners" is a dense and multilayered episode that not only addresses the issue of the death penalty with real ambivalence, but it also doesn't have a clear-cut resolution. In the episode, much as in real life, solving one mystery can never really provide all the answers to others. Viewers who expect nothing but two-fisted Western action may be slightly disappointed; though there are a few fistfights and shootouts here and there, characters here are more prone to use their wits and words rather than violence. Nonetheless, the combination of thoughtful writing and Western milieu (particularly the gorgeous shots of Wyoming plains) make this a cut above most Western series.
"Throw a Long Rope" is an episode that represents how good The Virginian can be. It would have been easy to make the character of a homesteader (Jack Warden, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) accused of rustling cattle by the landowners of Medicine Bow an unabashed victim, but the show is careful to explain the exact nature of the squabbles between the landowners and homesteaders to demonstrate that each has legitimate grievances, even if they both go too far to resolve them. As the episode progresses and the Virginian and Judge Garth are forced to choose sides, the episode ramps up the tension skillfully and some particularly shocking revelations make the ending especially affecting. Had this episode aired as a stand-alone movie, it would be considered a clever and well-directed little gem. As part of a series of episodes that are of generally equal quality, it highlights just how unfairly neglected and underrated The Virginian is.
Timeless Media Group has done an excellent job with this DVD collection. Packaged in a handsome tin box with a painted relief cover, the discs are housed in a bound cardboard book with each disc in its own sleeve, each of which is printed with fairly detailed episode descriptions and pictures. The episodes have been digitally remastered and the work definitely shows. Considering their age, they look extraordinarily good. Colors are sharp, with no fading or bleeding, and while there are some scratches and nicks, the overall picture quality will impress anyone. The Dolby mono mix is also stellar. It's so loud that you'll be able to make out even the softest detail, without any noticeable pops or hiss. As for extras, the eleventh disc in the set consists of lengthy interviews with Drury (45:25), Clarke (28:13), and Shore (19:41), along with Wagon Train's Robert Fuller (11:03) and Lawman's Peter Brown (7:47). Fans will enjoy these, but be warned that these do not contain any chapter stops, so it may be a bit of a slog to sit through the longer interviews. Still, Timeless deserves credit for going the extra mile for this collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The decision to make these episodes 75 minutes long was presumably to allow for more characterization and dialogue, but sometimes the results are a whole lot of unnecessary padding. "The Big Deal," for instance, contains an interminable sequence in which Montalban's character has a hard time finding a bed in a crowded hotel. These scenes don't add to the character nor are they amusing or interesting in and of themselves. If the show had been shorter, they would have probably ended up being deleted. The padding also applies to the attempts at comic relief, which are rarely successful. Though Trampas and Steve are sometimes used well, too often their characters are reduced to one-note jokes: Trampas is dumb and Steve is young, particularly. These jokey scenes are rather corny, so viewers might be forgiven for occasionally wishing that these episodes could have been trimmed down a bit.
The Virginian isn't always entirely successful, but for a series that's nearly fifty years old, it has aged remarkably well. Thoughtful writing and characterization go a long way to make this series a real pleasure to watch, so even if the episodes are sometimes too long or old-hat, it's still impressively understated and complex. If anything, it's not nearly as heavy handed as some shows currently on the air now. If you're looking for a Western series that's more about brains than brawn, you should give The Virginian a try.
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