Old-Style Heroism in ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’

Can’t find anything good on television today? Step into the world of an honest-to-goodness cowboy hero, where the outlaws get caught and good always triumphs over evil.

Imagine a gunfighter with a strategic intelligence akin to General MacArthur, the ability to quote Pliny and Aristotle knowledgeably, the sensitivity of a poet, the physical skill of a Samurai, and inviolable integrity and honor.

This is what you get in Paladin, the hero of Have Gun, Will Travel, a 1950s television series set in the time period following the Civil War.

When working as a gunslinger, Paladin always dresses in black from head to toe — and he’s a mighty cool customer. He uses his gun sparingly, instead preferring to reason his way out of the problems and danger he chooses to face for a living. He’s also admirably rakish, ever complimenting the ladies in a courteous manner bordering on cheekiness.

Paladin spends his leisure time playing chess, smoking cigars and accompanying beautiful damsels to the opera from his base of operations, the luxurious Hotel Carlton in San Francisco. Hey Boy, the Chinese porter of the hotel (then known as a “coolie”) and friend of Paladin, often brings him a set of newspapers from which Paladin gleans information and ideas for his work as a hired gunslinger — at the rate of $1,000 per day. Imagine what a fortune that was in those days! It is equivalent to over $105,000 in today’s dollars.

Luckily for us, the first season (1957) of this early black and white TV Western was recently released on DVD. Creators Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow wanted to create something unconventional with this series, so they used a number of new writers who would later go on to be luminaries of television and film.

Gene Roddenberry, creator and writer of the original Star Trekseries, wrote 23 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel, garnering a Writer’s Guild award for one of them. Irving Wallace, famed for his book The Agony and the Ecstasy, about Michelangelo, as well as The Man, about the first African-American president, also wrote for the show, as did Sam Peckinpah of The Wild Bunch. And they packed a wallop of a story into one half hour.

There are 39 episodes in the DVD set — it was a long season!

Show of Force, a typical story, opens with Paladin reading a newspaper article about two ranchers, Martin and Vasquez, who are fighting over a piece of land. This prompts him to take out his “business” cards, bearing his trademark of a white knight from the game of chess (a ‘paladin’ from Arthurian legend) and the imprimatur:

Have Gun Will Travel
Wire Paladin San Francisco

He sends a card to each of the ranchers. Next, we see him driving a wagonload of antique rifles he’s won in a poker game to Rancher Martin’s. What ensues is a fascinating negotiation between Paladin, Martin and then Rancher Vasquez, who ends up buying the rifles for what he thinks they are worth — after he uses them to fight Martin.

Paladin exquisitely controls the violence between these two men with his chess-like reasoning and rock-solid moral certainty. The ending is unexpected — and just, as always.

The theme of No Visitors offers an interesting perspective on religiously-motivated violence, and one that is particularly poignant in the present day. Paladin seeks help for a woman and sick infant he finds in the wilderness. A religious fanatic has whipped the nearby town into a frenzy, claiming that God told him the mother and child have typhoid. The townspeople will not let them into the town for a medical examination, nor for care by a doctor. With a combination of courage and reason, Paladin protects the woman and infant, as well as the female doctor treating them (played by June Lockhart).

In Hey Boy’s Revenge, Paladin displays his deep individualism. He discovers that Hey Boy has gotten himself imprisoned while trying to investigate his brother’s death in a railroad camp. Knowing that the slight, unassuming Hey Boy will get himself killed trying to avenge the murder, Paladin stands in for his friend and uncovers terrible corruption as a consequence.

Paladin’s character, played by Richard Boone, carries the lion’s share of the show. (Interestingly, Boone was a descendent of the legendary Kentuckian Daniel Boone.) With a big-nosed, pock-marked face, he reminds the viewer more of Cyrano than Sir Lancelot, but he has the presence to play either.

Towards the middle of the first season, an extra scene featuring the Ballad of Paladin was added to the end of every show. As Paladin rides away through the countryside, Johnny Western sings a memorable melody:

“Have gun, will travel reads the card of a man
A knight without armor in a savage land.”

Written by Western, Boone and Rolfe, the ballad was a hit in its own right — and I can see why. After every show, I end up whistling it for the rest of the day!

Deservedly, the show was a hit from its first year, ranking in the top five shows for four years running. The DVD set is available through Amazon and other venues, and the quality of the picture and sound are excellent. With five more seasons in the library, I’m hoping they release the rest on DVD soon. If so, there’s a lot of enjoyment to look forward to!