"Have Gun, Will Travel" reads the card of a man
A knight without armour in a savage land
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called...Paladin
From 1957 to 1963, for six seasons and 225 half-hour episodes, big, mean-looking Richard Boone played Paladin, gentleman gun-for-hire in CBS’ Have Gun - Will Travel. Riding the crest of the more “adult-oriented” TV western wave that started a few years earlier with shows like Cheyenne and Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel became an instant ratings smash, and became one of the rare programs to inspire a radio version (which debuted in 1958) rather than the other way around.
Have Gun - Will Travel was a well-made show with good scripts and solid direction, but the lion’s share of its success is down to its star, Richard Boone.
Boone had all the ingredients needed to become a great western hero: he was big, looked convincing with a gun and had a deep, gravelly voice that instantly conveyed authority. But he also had something extra. His long, leathery face, Satanic moustache and steely-eyed gaze forever made him a dark, menacing figure; he used these to good effect as a heavy in many films prior to, and after, Have Gun - Will Travel. This slightly sinister aura made a nice contrast with the sophisticated side of the Paladin character: a well-read, well-traveled West Point graduate and bon vivant, who lives in a posh San Francisco hotel, regularly attends the opera, and is as handy with a line of poetry as he is with a Colt .45.
Most episodes start out with Paladin enjoying the life of leisure his high fees afford him. Paladin sees a newspaper story about some trouble brewing somewhere. He sends the beleaguered party his card, emblazoned with his symbol, a knight chess piece: "Have Gun – Will Travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco". Or, almost as often, Paladin’s reputation for delivering results causes someone in trouble to seek him out and hire his services. Either way, the next thing we know, Paladin has arrived on the scene, no longer decked out in his dandy-ish city clothes, but dressed in his working gear, the quintessential Man in Black.
Paladin might be a mercenary of sorts, but he has a strong sense of moral justice, and will quickly change sides if he finds he’s been hired by someone out to do wrong. Though the series has plenty of action, more often than not, Paladin will work hard to get the two opposing sides in a particular situation to come to some sort of mutually-beneficial agreement.
Have Gun - Will Travel boasts a wide variety of story types. In season one alone we see Paladin settle a dispute between an Irish wildcatter and an Italian vintner (“Bitter Wine”); buy a camel and use it to run circles around a group of baddies chasing him through the desert in a battle for a town’s water rights (“The Great Mojave Chase,” written by Gene Roddenberry); play Pygmalion to an uncouth Calamity Jane type (“Ella West”); assist a female doctor trying to fight a smallpox epidemic (“The Return of Dr. Thackeray”); play lawyer to defend an accused killer (“Deliver the Body”), as well as all manner of other, more traditional western tales.
Luckily for we western fans that like to see the good guy shoot it out with the bad guys, there are still plenty of knuckleheads throughout the series who make the mistake of trying to draw down on Paladin. And he’s always ready to respond in kind.
In “Twenty Four Hours in North Fork,” with the stagecoach he’s riding sidelined due to a looming storm, Paladin finds himself stuck in a small town where the only mercantile store is run by bigoted Irish loudmouth Culligan. The local farmers are suffering from a wheat blight, and Culligan, the only business around for 95 miles, is offering them mere cents on the bushel. Culligan covets a Mennonite family’s farm and so treats them cruelly, refusing to sell them any supplies. Paladin steps in to defend a young woman, Tildy (Jacqueline Scott), taken in by the Mennonites to protect her from the advances of local thug Jud Polk (Brad Dexter).
Refused a room at the only hotel in town by Culligan, Paladin gratefully accepts the hospitality of Mennonite Maxim Bruckner (Morris Ankrum) and his family. He learns Tildy’s sad story: her alcoholic father sold her to Jud Polk, and only the Mennonites would risk Polk’s wrath and come to her aid. After Paladin learns that the Bruckner’s small wheat crop is free from blight, he sees a way to bring the Mennonites and the local farming community together, while ridding the town of the human blight of Culligan and his lackey Polk.
This leads to a great confrontation with Polk. Asked to avoid violence by the peace-loving Mr. Bruckner, Paladin nevertheless is forced to kill one gunman Culligan has employed to ambush him. The cowardly Polk grabs Tildy and holds her at gunpoint. “Hold still, Tildy,” Paladin calmly tells her, then shoots the hat off Polk’s head as a warning.
“She’s too small to hide all of you,” Paladin growls. “Now turn her loose before I start carving pieces out of you.”
Then to further ram his point home, he fires another shot, this time deliberately barely grazing Polk's shoulder. Polk lets Tildy go and throws his gun into the dust. “Don’t kill me, mister,” he pleads, “She ain’t worth the killing.”
Paladin smiles grimly and removes his gunbelt. “If this is a sin, I’m going to enjoy it more than any I’ve committed.” Then he proceeds to beat the tar out of Polk.
Have Gun - Will Travel frequently touches upon the multicultural background of frontier America. A nice touch here shows Paladin fully aware not only of the Mennonite’s history of peaceful prosperity in Pennsylvania, predating the Revolutionary War, but also their roots in the Crimea.
Another neat aspect of the show is how every episode opens with a side profile of Paladin (face unseen) drawing his gun, pointing it at the audience and rumbling out a line that would appear later in the episode, then replacing his gun back in its holster. Cue credits and famed composer Bernard Herrman’s ominous theme, “Dum dum, dum dum…” (Listen to the opening theme here).
“Twenty Four Hours at North Fork,” episode 36 (!!) of the first season, is a typically fun and offbeat outing, with fine performances by veteran supporting players Morris Ankrum, Karl Swensen (who would go on to play Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie), Jacqueline Scott and Brad Dexter (most famous to western fans for his portrayal of Harry, one of The Magnificent Seven). The episode, along with many others, was directed by Andrew V. McLagen (son of Victor), who would direct many fine later period westerns, such as Shenandoah, McClintock, Bandolero, The Undefeated and Chisum.
Have Gun - Will Travel wasn’t the first time the intimidating Boone had played a hero in a TV series. He headlined Medic (1954-1956) as Dr. Konrad Styner (recently available on DVD from Timeless Media Group). But it was the role of Paladin that fit him like a glove and made him famous. His presence alone makes Have Gun - Will Travel easily one of the best and most distinctive of 50s and 60s TV westerns.
DVD Note: Paramount initially released the first three seasons of Have Gun - Will Travel on DVD back in the mid-2000s, with transfers that ranged from very good to merely so-so. After a gap of several years, the studio has resumed putting the series out, and has released seasons 4 and 5 with reportedly more pristine picture quality, albeit in the split volume sets dreaded by vintage TV-on-DVD enthusiasts. Time will tell if we'll see the 6th and final season released. (Update: in a welcome move, the sixth and final season of Have Gun - Will Travel was released in one complete season set in May 2013 by Paramount.)
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