The Virginian: The Complete Series One Review

It’s time to saddle up and mosey on down to Shiloh Range as James reviews this classic TV Western.

Given that The Virginian is one of the finest TV Westerns ever made it’s somewhat appropriate to consider that much of what made it so good was due not to a noble desire to make a great piece of culture but rather came about thanks to the television equivalent of a barroom brawl and a simple desire to outdraw the competition. Back in 1962 the daddy of all small screen gunslingers was Wagon Train which by that point had been five years on its never-ending journey and was sitting happily at the top of the ratings. As one of the jewels in NBC’s crown it’s understandable that the network was rather upset when it suddenly up and left its home to decamp to ABC, which at that time was a much more low profile channel. It was a strange thing to do, not least because it meant that the show’s ratings would inevitably drop (the effect being equivalent of what would happen today if Eastenders suddenly left the BBC to go to Five) but nonetheless NBC now had to find a replacement for the upcoming 1962-3 season. It’s easy to imagine the executives in a fit of pique sitting around a board table and saying fine, we’ll show them. We’ll do everything Wagon Train does, but bigger! Wagon Train was made in black and white so we’ll make our new show in colour! And we’ll have four leads instead of two, and instead of the B-movie leads we’ll include Lee J Cobb in the mix! And, and, yeah I know, instead of being an hour, our show will be… an hour and a half! Ha! That’ll show those varmints who’s still sheriff in this town. Viewed dispassionately, this last decision sounded nuts, a production nightmare – even for the shows with the biggest budgets, schedules were pushed as it was to film the thirty-odd hour long shows each season required, and there was just no precedent to making weekly television stretch for another thirty minutes. But in the desire to create a ready-made blockbuster hit that was what was decided, and to give the project the best chance to succeed NBC decided to base it on a property with a recognition factor as powerful as any in the genre. Even people who had never seen a Western in their life knew what the Virginian was.

At that time there had already been four films based on Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, including this silent version by Cecil B DeMille and an early talkie in 1929 starring Gary Cooper and directed by Victor Fleming, which despite its vintage is still probably the finest adaptation. Considered to be the first true Western, these days Wister’s novel is terribly dated in its outlook, and even in the Sixties it’s clear that NBC was only interested in the name, rather than substance, of the title. Much like certain James Bond films, aside from some names and very basic set-ups there’s nothing similar between book and TV series, so much so that Wister’s villainous Trampas is transformed into the show’s comic relief. The titular character, played by James Drury, still has a question mark over his background, but unlike the literary character this is very much an affectation – despite the best efforts of the script writers to inject an air of mystery into the man, with other characters regularly wondering “Who is the Virginian?” there’s nothing very exotic about Drury’s persona. Instead, he’s just the straight-talking foreman of Shiloh Ranch, a sprawling cattle range in Wyoming owned by Judge Henry Garth (Lee J Cobb) a little way out of the small frontier town of Medicine Bow, which he runs alongside sidekicks Trampas and Steve Hill (Doug McClure and Gary Clarke). His love interest from the book survives in the form of Molly Brown (Pippa Scott), but whereas in the book she’s an Eastern school teacher whose gentility provides a contrast with the rugged machismo of life out west, here she’s a pioneering female newspaper editor who can give as good as she takes – sadly, from almost the first scene she appears in, it’s evident that not only is there zero chemistry between Scott and the male performers (not helped by the fact that the actress appears at least ten years older than any of them, even though they were all virtually identical in age) but that the character and performance isn’t going to gel – she was gone by the end of the season. Fortunately, there was still some female interest to be had in the form of the wholesome Roberta Shore as Judge Garth’s daughter Betsy, who with her constant smiley-smiley smile performance is reminiscent of Karen Allen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The extended running time of each episode meant that the show could afford to take a more sophisticated approach to the conventions of the Western than many of its predecessors. While it’s very easy to be too sniffy about how formulaic television Westerns were, there’s no doubt that the majority strayed little from a handful of staple storylines which could be repeated ad nauseam. The Virginian certainly follows many of these well enough, but notably tries to come at them from a slightly different angle than most. Whereas the majority of Westerns were set in the couple of decades following the Civil War, a time when the Indian Wars were at their height and men wore metaphorical white and black hats, this first season takes place in 1898, a time when, as the episodes repeatedly emphasise, the lawlessness of the great plains was being supplanted by the demands of civilisation and the only Native Americans to be seen are more lightly to doff their hat in supplication than fire an arrow in defiance. This is a world where an episode doesn’t necessarily end with the shooting of a man – there are now consequences to be paid, due process to be gone through, rules and regulations that don’t sit too kindly with those who remember the good old days. The Law is no longer the man running the jail but a whole system which can no longer be ignored. Two early episodes make this abundantly clear, one dramatically, one in a more light-hearted fashion. The former, It Tolls For Thee, stars Lee Marvin as a crook whom the Judge put away some years previously and who is now out and looking for revenge. Marvin’s character is going through some kind of existential crisis in that he can’t begin to fathom locking someone up like an animal rather than either hanging them or letting them go, while the Judge himself is struggling with similar issues after being invited by Joseph Pulitzer no less to star in an article about the violent west, a stereotype the Judge no longer believes applies. An intended statement of intent for the series, it’s a well-judged story, well played by Marvin and Cobb, which determinedly underlines that the characters have conflicts a bit more sophisticated than whether they cheated at cards or shot someone’s pa. This west is one which is gradually losing its wild appellation, a change many, on both sides of the law, are struggling to come to terms with. The very next episode, West, examines similar ideas in a more light-hearted light, as Trampas teams up a gang of fun-loving nitwits who still think it’s 1870 and act accordingly, much to the displeasure of local law enforcers. There are many other examples throughout the series, both entire episodes and individual characters (like Vengeance is the Spur’s outlaw who refuses to allow any killing) and it’s possibly not stretching the point too much to observe that as early as the second episode Medicine Bow is pointedly celebrating the election of Wyoming’s first Senator (even if the pedant in me has to point out it’s historically a few years too late) to show that Progress is well and truly being made. After all, it’s difficult to imagine Dodge City in its heyday putting up with a woman running the local newspaper.

The unease regarding encroaching demands of civilisation on the frontier was also a theme of Wister’s novel, which took as its background the Johnson County War, a series of battles between ranchers and rustlers which saw extrajudicial justice meted out on the latter by the former (a justice Wister finally supported.) There isn’t a direct adaption the story in the series, but Impasse comes reasonably close, with Judge Garth ordering our heroes to take on a family of rustlers who have ruled the roost of a plot of land not legally theirs for too long. It’s a good example of how the competing demands of this theme and normal television convention are reconciled in the show. The episode ends, predictably, with the head of the family getting gunned down and the sons deciding maybe they should give up the whole business, but along the way there’s enough of a debate between the two viewpoints, voiced by the Virginian and the villain, to make a more thoughtful piece than would normally be the case.

Which is not to say that the standard tropes of the Western are ignored, nosirree they ain’t. Medicine Bow might be among the more enlightened communities out there, but its population is still made up of a familiar cast of conmen, outlaws, innocents, drunkards, ranchers, crooked lawyers and prospectors, as well as some less likely denizens such as a giant bear called Moses. These are often played by a higher than usual calibre of guest stars – in an era when television acting was rather looked down upon, this season has an impressive array of famous faces, including Ricardo Montalban, doing his regular charmingly dangerous foreigner shtick that served him so well, George C Scott as a cowardly school teacher, Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Howard Duff and Ida Lupino (in the same episode) and others. There are also pre-fame appearances by Robert Colbert, Tom Skerrit, Robert Duvall and possibly more I missed, while the Trekkie in me can’t resist highlighting that both James Doohan and DeForest Kelley pop up in supporting roles (although in fairness it’s quite hard to find a Western that Kelley doesn’t appear in at some point.) It’s fair to say that the majority of performances are broad rather than nuanced, rightly so, but the leading guests generally put in fine performances that show a respect to the series – Scott is especially good.

However, that doesn’t mean that the regulars are sidelined. A lot of episodic Westerns made the focus of their episodes the guest star, regulars there to provide continuity and little else (both Wagon Train and Gunsmoke are good examples of this approach), but a good majority of The Virginian’s episodes give one or more of the leads a personal investment in the story no matter who the guest is (the Marvin episode cited above being a good example.) There are admittedly episodes which feature minimum involvement from any of them, but these are rare and one gets the impression they exist more because of the demands of the schedule than as a preference of the production – generally these are among the weakest of the season. The focus on the leads means that in this first year alone we’re given origin stories for all four main characters (albeit of a partial sort for the Virginian himself) and by the end of the thirty episodes the viewers have become invested enough in the characters to make us care for what happens to them, again something which is by no means true of other shows of the era. It would be wholly wrong to say the characterisations are of a depth equivalent to the best big screen movies of the day or of that great modern Western Deadwood but they are rounded enough – especially the Judge – to be a couple of cuts above the norm. The closest other series which also spent the majority of its show actually featuring one of the leads is Bonanza but the comparison doesn’t favour the Cartwright boys, who are always somewhat one-dimensional in comparison.

The charm of the four here is also, of course, due to the performances, the show having a strong cast, although oddly it’s not Drury who makes the most impression. In contrast to his off-screen persona (by his admission he was a somewhat demanding star) his characterisation is not as gritty as you might expect. He gives the impression of measured toughness but nothing more, very far from being a hardman like a Matt Dillon or a Flint McCullough. The hardiest performance instead comes from Cobb, who infuses his judge with a veneer of frontier ruggedness that covers a surprisingly tender vulnerability – the episodes which showcase this side of him are among the most memorable for this reason. McClure too is far better than you might expect – while you might remember him from such films as The Land That Time Forgot and At The Earth’s Core this was his finest hour. Showing a light comic touch that is sometimes lost in his B-movie afterlife, he makes Trampas both goofy and warm, while simultaneously showing enough steel so that the idea of him as the Virginian’s right hand man never seems remotely unlikely. It’s noticeable that there are far more episodes with him rather than the other comic of the series, Gary Clarke’s Steve, who of the four is the one who disappears into the shadows the most. It’s regrettable that at Steve’s big moment, Duel at Shiloh Clarke doesn’t give as strong a performance as the others, and it’s not so surprising that of the four he was the first to leave the series, departing after one more season.

The extended running time allows for much use of location shoots, with the wild open plains and multiple standard studio Western town sets all helping to lend the show a sense of the epic the likes of Rawhide could only dream about. That, as said, extends to the script writing, which was a cut above the norm, helped along by several episodes directed and written by the same person. However, inevitably the pressures of the schedule have some serious downsides. While the running time led to the conceit that The Virginian was actually a series of self-contained movies rather than a television series, it’s actually quite hard to find an episode which couldn’t be condensed into an hour without losing very much. There are innumerable longueurs, lengthy shots of riding and people getting on and off horses, entire scenes which smack of padding. At times you can almost hear the director saying “Take your time Doug, we’re in no rush here” as Trampas unhurriedly wanders through the shot. It’s also notable that there’s a slightly higher than average number of fluffs that make it into the final cut, with actors on occasion visibly stumbling over lines but carrying on regardless, as though there just wasn’t time to stop every time someone didn’t quite hit the mark. There’s also, especially as the season wears on, a mild tendency to repeating the same ideas over and over, with too many episodes featuring an ex con or other shady figure coming back for revenge or someone needing to be chased across endless prairies for what feels like forever. It can be argued that such are the demands of the genre, but such issues are magnified with the 90 minute format (as well as, admittedly, watching one after another in a DVD set!) There are also inevitably some duds, including Riff-Raff which, featuring as it does our heroes joining Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and leading the assault at The Battle of San Juan Hill is a bit too daft to pull off. The worst episode is Woman From White Wing, a bizarre character assassination of the Judge which comes with no redemption at the end and leaves the viewer thinking he’s a bit of a rotter. As only the second episode aired it’s a big misstep (fortunately not one that was fatal) that the viewer is recommended to forget at once Armin Tamzarian-style if you want to be able to live with the character for the rest of the series.

Nonetheless, The Virginian has stood the test of time as one of the pre-eminent Westerns of its day. While it never troubled the top of the ratings lists it remained comfortably in the Top Thirty for all but one of its nine seasons, and ended up being the third longest TV Western of all time (Gunsmoke and Bonanza being ahead of it.) Not having seen all nine years I can’t say how this season compares to them all, but it is certainly a hugely entertaining start, with many strong episodes and performances, and it’s very easy to sink happily into the world of Medicine Bow. Perhaps the biggest compliment paid to it is how Wagon Train, languishing in its new home and rapidly dropping down the ratings responded. In an attempt to claw back some ground they too went to colour and ninety minutes episodes, but the reaction was muted and the following season, rather miserably, it went back to the old format. But the series never again regained its former lustre (although in fairness the death of one of its leads a couple of years prior also hadn’t helped) and in pretty much every regard NBC succeeded in its aims at producing a show that was at its worst Wagon Train’s equal and its best its superior. Even now, nearly fifty years on, the comparison between the two is unfortunate, this show having dated far better, so much so that although it strays a bit from the norm and is not quite your typical Stetson and saloon offering, it’s very difficult now to say anything but that, if you’ve never sampled an offering from this period, this is the one to go for.

With three episodes per disc and thirty episodes in the season, this is a hefty release, even more so given there’s an eleventh disc thrown in for good measure which contains the set’s interview extras. The menus feature the same static image of our heroes across all discs, alongside an episode list, each episode having its own chapter submenu. There are too few chapter divisions given the running time, but much more annoying is a complete absence of subtitles – to still be saying in 2011 that subtitles should be a basic of all DVD releases is regrettable.

That said, the AV presentation is good. Some episodes have obviously stood the test of time better than others, but generally colours are okay, if sometimes a bit faded and detail reasonable. Here and there the odd digital artefact pops up to make a face particularly blobby, and I’ve certainly seen far better transfers for series of this era, but it’s all acceptable. The Audio is unspectacular but perfectly fine, with the exception of a handful of times where the levels either suddenly drop or raise mid-episode and then remain at that new setting for the remainder of that instalment.

Nearly two hours of interviews with remaining cast members make up the only extras. Naturally James Drury gets the lion’s share of the time and his is the most entertaining portion. While plenty of stars spend their twilight years publicising their glory days, there aren’t many who seem as genuinely enthusiastic about their work as Drury, who still spends a lot of time travelling round appearing at events and speaking about the show. There’s no sense he’s phoning it in for the fans but is rather extremely proud of his series and eager that it isn’t forgotten.

The other contributors are Gary Clarke and Roberta Shore as well as, somewhat strangely, Robert Fuller and Peter Brown. Given that the latter two actors appeared in a combined total of five episodes between them they don’t have a great deal to say on the subject, and one gets the impression their slots have wandered in from cutting floor extracts from releases dealing with their own shows (Fuller starred in both Wagon Train and Laramie and Brown Laredo, which in fairness was spun off from an episode of The Virginian.) The most amusing part from their contributions, as indeed with Clarke and Shore’s, is the emerging portrait of Drury as being a bit forceful on set, with one even sucking in his teeth when the subject is raised. Drury himself happily admits to his more divaish behaviour, which included going on strike whenever he had a beef about something and effing and blinding so much the prim Shore upbraided him. While combined these interviews are very formulaic – we patiently trawl through each interviewee’s opinion of all the lead characters (including those who don’t appear in Season One) it’s moments like this that make them worthwhile.

If you’re curious to check out a typical vintage Western, this isn’t the one to go for, but this is still a fine series, one that’s stood the test of time, and is here presented on a decent if unspectacular set that, given the number of episodes, is still excellent value.

James Gray

Updated: Mar 21, 2011

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