Monday, August 1, 2016

When a tough exterior hides a heart of gold in . . .

Written (sort of) for the Legends of Western Cinema week, hosted by A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile, in Rivendell. I say sort of because I had planned to write a post on Wanted: Dead or Alive anyway, but this gave me motivation to actually buckle down and do it.

The era of the television western was something to behold. Its recognized beginning was 1949 and the official ending was 1969, so a mere 20 year span of time. Oh, some shows made it past the 1969 cut-off, like The Young Riders in the 1980s and of course, Alias Smith and Jones from the 1970s, but the official best years of the genre was always in the 1950s and the early 1960s.

Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Big Valley, and one of my favorites, The Wild Wild West all ran during that span of time. And while I'd like to focus on each and every one of them, I've chosen instead a western series that only ran for 3 years, from 1958 to 1961, and birthed the beginnings of a radiant career on the big screen.

That's right, I'm talking about Wanted: Dead or Alive starring none other than Steve McQueen.

Would you believe that I've only been a fan of this show, and McQueen, for less than a year? I guess I needed to fall in love with McQueen at the right time in my life, and that time happens to be now. But I especially, ESPECIALLY, love him as Josh Randall, the tough bounty hunter with a heart of gold from Wanted: Dead or Alive.

I think if this show were just another western series than I might not have latched onto it quite so voraciously. The creators took an original approach with the idea, allowing for the idea that not all heroes are good all the time and that bad things happen to good people. Perhaps it's not that original, but I'd never before encountered a western series that permitted, even encouraged, the characters to make mistakes. All with a brilliant, tight humor that never, ever failed to make an appearance in each episode. Sure, be serious, but make sure you give the viewer a break with snatches of hilarity too. These writers understood the need for humor in an otherwise dramatic series.

Josh Randall is terrific, but he's far from perfect. In fact, this is one of his normal looks, that half bewildered, half how-the-heck-did-I-get-myself-into-this-mess look. McQueen perfected that look. Anyway, Randall's a bounty hunter and money is a really strong motivator for what he does and why. I've read reviews that try to soften Randall, that he always gives his money away to people who need it, and it makes me wonder what show they're watching.

Yes, there were a couple of times, random times, when Josh would give money to someone, usually a victim or sometimes a relative of the criminal he hunted (the latter may have happened once), but overall, he kept the money. And his favorite pastimes when he's not chasing a bounty are lounging in saloons and gambling. So I'm pretty sure I know that the money ends up in the hands of gamblers who are slightly more skilled than he at the game.

However, I also said that Josh Randall has a heart of gold. He does. It just doesn't come in the form of giving away his bounty money. Instead, Josh is very wary of the bounties that he hunts. If someone doesn't seem on the up and up, he won't take the job. Plus, whenever possible, he attempts to take the prisoner alive because he believes in the system. It's not his job to kill people and he doesn't have a murderous heart like some bounty hunters.

But he's still spurned and scorned by many a western town because of his occupation. Oh, Josh will make a friend or two out of a sheriff, but when it comes down to your ordinary, everyday citizen, nope, it's not going to happen. The women in the show are especially devious, even cleverer than he is, and there's been many a time that he's had the wool pulled over his eyes by a fainting violet with nerves of steel and an ulterior motive. I guess you could say where women are concerned he's very naive.

This predilection most western towns had for hating bounty hunters crops up quite frequently, in fact. I'll always remember the episode where Josh brings in a bounty, but the criminal gets loose and takes the sheriff hostage. The sheriff's daughter is a town favorite and she cannot stand the idea of her father being left in the hands of a criminal, so the town decides to give the criminal Josh instead. At gunpoint. Sure, that's a nice, friendly little town they've got there. The sheriff's life is of more value to these upstanding citizens than a bounty hunter.

Josh encounters that mentality time and again throughout the series, but he's never vengeful, always resigned to their hatred of him, and he never raises a hand against innocent bystanders. He rolls with the punches most of the time, and there are plenty of punches. It wouldn't be an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive if Josh didn't get knocked unconscious at least once. McQueen just did it so gracefully!

You know, it's entertaining to see where Steve McQueen got his start in westerns. Of course, westerns aren't all he did, but the roles of western archetype heroes seemed to suit him. As television western series go, there are scads more than would ever have time to watch, and the lesser known ones are lesser known for a reason. But Wanted: Dead or Alive takes its storytelling seriously and acknowledges that not every encounter in the west had a happy ending. In fact, some endings are downright sad, but that's real life.

You can also tell the quality by the types of guest stars who made appearances with such names as Michael Landon, Warren Oates, James Coburn, and even Martin Landau. Do I care that the bullets on Josh's belt could never, in a million years, fit that gun? Nope, I do not, because McQueen sells the character to the audience from the very 1st episode and we don't care that the bullets don't fit. Wanted: Dead or Alive is a brilliant western series with a brilliant lead actor who just captures the heart and the imagination with his glittering eyes, lean body (yes I have a crush, so sue me), and that crazy Mare's Laig of a rifle that he has strapped to his leg. ❤