Television Westerns | Western-Mystery Fiction Hybrids

Reviews: The "Lancer" Pilot | Don McDougall

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This is a portal with links to articles on my sites about Television Westerns, Western-mystery fiction hybrids, and other Western topics.

Television Westerns

A list of my Favorite Episodes, along with credits. Over 500 TV Western episodes are listed.

Directors of TV Westerns:

Several of these articles also discuss their Western feature films.

Please see also my list of Television Westerns on Civil Rights.

Western-Mystery Fiction Hybrids

Articles on authors of mystery-Western hybrid novels and short stories: My own mystery-Western short story (light-hearted fun):

The One Dollar Mail Robbery of Buzzard's Corners

The "Lancer" Pilot

The High Riders (1968) is the pilot for the TV Western series Lancer.

Race and Brotherhood. The two heroes are from different ethnic backgrounds:

The High Chaparral, which debuted in 1967, offered a portrait of a happy family with both Anglo and Mexican characters. I think The High Riders was attempting to mine the same terrain.

Half-brothers Johnny and Scott learn to be friends. This is likely an allegory for reconciliation between Anglos and Hispanics, a pro-Civil Rights statement. The two men exemplify racial brotherhood.

For more examples, please see my list Civil Rights in TV Westerns.

Echoes of Zorro. In The Mark of Zorro (Rouben Mamoulian, 1940) the hero is nearly caught in a woman's bedroom, by her family outside. This is the same premise as the first scene with Scott Lancer in The High Riders.

To evade capture, Scott Lancer jumps out a window, with casual aplomb. This sort of stunt recalls movie swashbucklers. Especially perhaps Zorro films. It also enhances our image of Scott Lancer and his capabilities.

Most of the plot of The High Riders takes place in or near a California town, filled with Hispanic inhabitants. This too recalls Zorro tales. So does the scene in which one of the peaceful Hispanic inhabitants is terrorized by an evil gang. The gang is not the actual government, which is the oppressive force in Zorro films. But the gang seems to perform its evil actions without any government or police opposition. This makes it more-or-less in charge, by default.

Camera Movement. Scott Lancer's first scene is full of camera movement. The movements sometimes follow his girlfriend. But mainly they heighten Scott's own movements. The camera movements help fill this scene with a pleasant sense of dynamic activity.

Costumes. Scott wears a suit on the stagecoach. It is indeed an Eastern suit - he's from Boston. And Eastern clothes are not common out West. So he looks like a "fish out of water".

But mainly the audience will see him sympathetically as a "man all dressed up in a good suit". This is a norm for American men, on-screen and off, for over a hundred years. Scott looks good in the suit. And, I'm convinced, most American viewers in both 1968 and the 2010's will think he looks good in his suit. They will also think he looks decently, properly dressed.

Scott wears a frilled shirt with his suit. At first this sounds like "too much". But in practice, audiences in this era strongly approved of frilled shirts in Westerns. James Garner zoomed to stardom wearing a frilled shirt, as the hero of Maverick (1957-1960). Garner's shirt, like Scott Lancer's, has ruffles on both the shirt-front and cuffs. It is possible that frilled shirts expressed sophistication, something valued by audiences in that era.

Scott himself soon recognizes that an Eastern suit is not suitable for a California ranch. He goes to the local general store, and buys some Western clothes that will help him "fit in".

Scott wears "white tie and tails" while romancing a woman, in his first scene, White tie and tails has also been long seen in Hollywood as a good style for men. When outdoors, he wears a top hat with it, and carries a cane. Both of these are standard accompaniments to white tie and tails. Both are phallic symbols. The actor knows how to carry the cane in front, to maximize the phallic symbolism.

Robert Conrad regularly wore white tie and tails on his Western TV series The Wild Wild West (1965-1969). Both the tails on The High Riders and The Wild Wild West are slightly modified from standard 20th Century tails, to give them a 19th Century feel. The outfit on The High Riders is closer to 20th Century standard versions.

Neither the print I saw of The High Riders, nor its IMDb entry, lists the name of the film's costume designer. This is fairly rare in TV of its era, but not unheard of. Another example: most Twilight Zone episodes also fail to name a costume designer.

Mustache. The Villan (Joe Don Baker) wears a mustache. It derives from two different traditions:

Mod mustaches were part of TV Westerns at this time: By contrast, in a slightly earlier period the mustache was simply a symbol of a bad guy. See James Drury's evil gunslinger-for-hire in Incident of the Night on the Town (Anton Leader, 1961), an episode of Rawhide. This is a still impressive performance.

Violence. American TV Westerns often were constructed along a simple plan: "An hour of talk, followed by a fairly brief final shoot-out." This is a pretty accurate description of The High Riders. There's a little violence at the start, too, but not a lot till the end.

The Tarantino Version. Quentin Tarantino created the film Once Upon a Hollywood (2019). It is set in Hollywood in the late 1960's, and reworks real events. Some of its characters take part in a (fictionalized) filming of The High Riders. Parts of this new Tarantino version of The High Riders are shown being filmed.

There are odd differences of appearance, between this Tarantino version of The High Riders, and the original:

Both of these changes are so drastic, that one has to believe they were likely deliberate.

Both of these changes in style, change the story content and meaning of their scenes.

The Tarantino Novel. Tarantino's novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood includes fake "ads". Rudyard Kipling's science fiction novella "With the Night Mail" (1905, 1909) concludes with numerous fake ads, representative of the future society the tale depicts.

Don McDougall

Don McDougall is a prolific director of TV Westerns. Very little has been written about his work.

I liked 16 of the 42 episodes McDougall directed on The Virginian.

Don McDougall's episodes of The Virginian tend to focus on characters' personal lives: their romances and/or their family conflicts. His treatment of these subjects is straightforward but sensitive. He shows good storytelling, allowing the viewer to become involved in the characters' stories.

One suspects that many people who don't watch TV Westerns, have no idea that such "romantic dramas" are fairly common in TV Westerns.

Don McDougall's touch is delicate and low key. He conveys the feelings of his characters, in a fairly gentle manner.

In some of these episodes, the romance drama is the whole story. But other episodes also have a "big public conflict" going on too:

These aspects are well-treated.

Don McDougall was enormously prolific as a director of TV Westerns, although he directed other genres too. He had the ability to film a script so that it fit into the paradigms of the Western. A speculation: both producers and viewers were comfortable with his works, regarding them as "real Westerns".

Don McDougall's work is neither high-brow nor vulgar.

Bitter Harvest is the most impressive of these McDougall episodes. In addition to its family drama and its cattlemen vs farmers story, it eventually develops some impressive social commentary. Bitter Harvest should be much better know.