Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Overdose of Grizzled Veterans

The TV show Wagon Train ran for eight seasons. For the first three years it was on (and for part of the fourth year), it starred Ward Bond as the grizzled veteran wagon master Seth Adams.

Bond was a perfect fit for this part, as few actors could pull off a grizzled veteran vibe with as much authenticity as he did. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1960. He was replaced on Wagon Train by John McIntire, who played grizzled veteran wagon master Christopher Hale.

This worked out fine, because John McIntire played a pretty good grizzled veteran himself.

During it's seventh season, Wagon Train went from black-and-white to color and began to air 90 minute episodes. (Oddly, its eighth and last season saw it return to both black-and-white and a 1-hour format.) Despite my love of black-and-white, I will admit that the color season was a strong one, with the longer format making room for some sophisticated storytelling and strong characterizations.

The October 14, 1963 episode--"The Robert Harrison Clarke Story"--is a fine example of this. Written by Gene L. Coon (a great writer who would, a few years later, create Klingons, Khan and the Prime Directive while working on Star Trek), the story involves a snotty English writer who wants the story of the "real" American West. He's read dime novels and recognizes them as nonsense, but he overcompensates with the mind-set that the West is a dull, dirty place full of annoying people.

The reporter is the title character and well-played by Michael Rennie. This time out, though, Rennie doesn't have a robot with a death ray backing him up. Instead, he has a Sikh servant named Ram Sing. Together, Clarke and Sing have lived through wars in Africa and Asia, but now they just seemed destined to eat dust as the wagon train monotonously plows westward.

The situation soon gets dangerous. An Eastern-educated Kiowa chief named John Warbow has formed an alliance between his tribe and the Comanches. He's determined to wipe out a troop of soldiers that is also in the area.

What follows is a very well-constructed story that follows both the wagon train (actually a survey party this time out rather than a full wagon train) and the army troop. The troop's top sergeant, by the way, is played by Brian Keith, yet another actor who could give real depth to the grizzled veteran archetype.

Heck, I'm pretty sure that Ward Bond, John McIntire and Brian Keith were not born of woman, but spawned full-grown and already grizzled after the mating of a wildcat and a velociraptor.

Eventually, most of the army troop is wiped out. The wagon train guys, two surviving soldiers and Clarke are in a last-stand situation and seem doomed. And Clarke is near panic. It's not that he's a coward--he's held his own in battle in the past--but Ram Sing is now out of the picture. Clarke feels like he's alone. And it's hard for a man to be brave when he's got no one to be brave with.

It's a wonderfully told tale with some great actors giving real heart to the characters in the story. Below is a clip with two separate scenes from the episode. The first scene is the attack on the army troop, which makes great use of location photography. I'm pretty sure the attacking Indians are stock footage. If so, the director manages to merge this into new footage seamlessly by including a really effective tracking shot to show the Indians' point-of-view while charging the soldiers.

The second scene shows us the various characters talking on what they fully expect to be their last night on earth. It's a poignant scene, featuring expert character actors such as McIntire, Keith, Rennie and Royal Dano underplaying their roles to perfection.

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