"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
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.
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.
“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.)