Wagons Ho! In Search of Seth, Flint, and America
When that last trump has sounded, and all that has been hidden has been revealed, I should not be surprised to find that the America’s great media and entertainment outlets were conjoined by subterranean pipelines leading directly from Pandemonium: that great capital city of Hell spoken of by the poet Milton. So vile are the contents that flow through these conduits on a 24 hour basis that they could well be analogized as sewage outfalls. In truth, the corrupting influence proceeding from Beelzebub to Little Johnny on the sofa is not lost on those who program their own patented brand of soul sickness for society’s consumption. For after all, it is rightly termed “programming:” the moral-political maleducation of “Last Men” as drones for a society that tolerates and promotes anything, except that narrowest of affronts -- moral virtue.
That old dinosaur once called "network television" has long been on its slippery slope to perdition, even before the cable TV universe made off with its viewing public like Romans sacking Carthage. And in order to compete with that multiplicity of media options and the cash flow that follows every corrupted art, the Brontosaurus had to go “blue:” even if only to keep pace with a culture who supposedly wanted to see images that mirrored what their real lives looked like -– or by which they could live vicariously through. Some say that art imitates life and others hold that life mimics the aesthetic. More likely, the process is synonymous with a “tango of decline:” with both art and life leading and being led in a synchronous dance through the blacker regions of the mortal imagination. And while some, much like Lot, have averted their eyes and refused to turn back and gaze upon television’s wretched self-imposed judgment, the many became enamored and incrementally transformed by those squalid images reflected from media’s Imago Morior – the mirror’s facsimile of decay unto spiritual death.
Nothing reveals how far down the rabbit-hole we have tumbled then to compare and contrast television’s golden age with today’s lurid fascination with sexual saturation and the loss of innocence through Hollywood’s skewed spectrum. If a people, writ large, are ever to revive their ethical palates from post modernity’s cesspool, then perhaps it might be profitable to reconsider America’s Western-genre morality play par excellence: from 1957 -- “Wagon Train.”
For you who were too poor to have owned a black and white 20” Philco or who do not routinely watch any of the “retro” TV channels that are becoming increasingly popular with cable packages (ME-TV), “Wagon Train” starred the wonderful Ward Bond as Major Seth Adams, the hot tempered but fearless wagon master; and Robert Horton as the dashingly handsome and handy-in-a pinch trail scout, Flint McCullough. Although the series began its run in the Age of Rockets, it stood as a giant among the cavalcade of Westerns that riveted America’s viewing public. Each week featured stars from Hollywood’s pantheon of celebrities who took turns joining Major Adam’s coterie of Conestogas or who figured somewhere prominent within their periphery. And although the show had a rather formulaic beginning in its 8-year run, the quality of writing soon became top notch as the cast of regulars quickly congealed. Bond’s trusted anchors featured Frank McGrath’s loveable clown “Charlie Wooster” and Terry Wilson’s feisty Bill Hawks. Together, they all took on the herculean task of getting several hundred wagons from “St. Joe” Missouri to their rainbow’s end in California.
Several generations before today’s horde of scantily clad, surgically-altered anorexics and six-packed dunderheads, classic television -- which was short on money and long on talent -- was driven by damned good scripts. Wagon Train was blessed with some of the industry’s best writers, which is evidenced in “The Ella Lindstrom Story” (Feb. 1959) featuring Bette Davis. Having lost her husband to sickness, the strong yet loving mother of 7 dutiful children joins the train, only to find that the child she believes she is carrying is in fact a terminal cancer. Despite every entreaty for her to turn back, Lindstrom presses on with a plan motivated by her faith. Emotionally moving without being maudlin, the tale finds Ella scrambling to find the best homes for her children from amongst the pioneer families who are helping share her burden. All the while, the children are allowed the dignity to make decisions that will seal their own futures, and a surprise happy ending for her youngest “special needs” son is guaranteed to turn on the water works. At the episode’s closing, Bette Davis is lovingly laid to rest beside the trail by the families that are moving West with her marvelous children that remain as living legacies to her memory.
The plight of the “Indian” (I will offer no PC anachronisms here) has long been a sore spot in American culture, but the series more often than not took the high ground in its portrayal of our aboriginals. “Wagon Train” managed to avoid both the prima facie judgment of Indians as savage beasts, as well as the contemporary deceit that depicts them as moral innocents of the New World, guiltless pawns and martyrs who were grievously put upon in a clash of civilizations. Moreover, the writers were not so gullible that they glossed over the beastliness and slave-owning propensities of the indigenous tribes, nor were they callous to the tragedy that ensued when a Neolithic race was overtaken by a relentless irresistable wave. Individual characters on both sides of the conflict could be depicted as noble or barbarous, depending upon the collision of fractured personalities motivated by the constraints of scarcity, necessity, or vengeance. Indeed, the Indian was as often viewed under a magnanimous lens as he was shown bearing a heart of darkness – which is the most we can hope for when honestly appraising the frailties of the human condition. In the episode titled “A Man Called Horse,” (March 1958) veteran actor Ralph Meeker wanders into camp as a “White Indian,” and while sitting around the campfire with Seth and Clint, tells them his harrowing story.
Having been rejected from marrying into the Boston “blue blood” society because he was an orphan with no family name (he was named after the street where the orphanage was located), our young man flees west in bitterness to find out “who he is,” so to speak. En route, he is captured by a band of Crow raiders and made a slave, much like a horse. And as such, he finds himself as an alien now rejected by two worlds. Through his time amongst the Crow, he learns to make himself useful in order to be trusted so that one day he might escape; but along the way, death and tragedy temper the man, allowing him to find love and acceptance amongst this strange new people. The ironic moral encapsulated in “A Man Called Horse” is that prejudice exists in every walk of life, and that a man’s alienation is a mountain that he must either overcome -- or it will cause him to wither in despair. Ever perceptive of human character, Flint McCullough offers a poignant remark as “Horse” leaves with the beloved and aged adoptive Indian mother who was once his slave master: “I guess he finally found what he was looking for, to make a name for himself.”
Whether history occurred in exactly the manner that our entertainment narratives have chronicled perhaps means less than the lessons they avail us, or the templates that they would have us strive to emulate. If American history is reduced to a Darwinian scramble that is “red in tooth and claw,” then survival by any means will be paramount, and courage, mercy, empathy, gratitude, endurance, and faith will be eclipsed by guile, covetousness, cupidity, blind ambition, and every negative manifestation of pride. For the most part, the quality of writing exemplified in this series led its audience to a clear-cut morality: without the muddled grey frontiers that now serve only to disorient us. As for the themes -- they are eternal. The archetype of a pioneer who has forsaken all he has known for the sake of a promise is as old as the story of Abraham, and the story of grim men who went on to make a fresh start from a bad beginning is as ancient as the tale of Cain.
No moral people can long survive who view themselves as marauding plagues upon a continent; so the stories men tell about themselves must be salutary. They may not be exhaustively true, but they must be educative towards moral virtue, for art is a powerful sculptor of the human horizon, as Plato so shrewdly observed. This monochrome simplicity may seem naïve, or as the post-modern wags say “jejune,” but it is a naiveté of the noble heart that inspires men to be more than they are “ethically” – and we must be continually reminded that our ethical reach must exceed our grasp. If art and science hold that we are animals, then we shall dutifully remain such. If those who whisper wisdom tell us we are fallen, yet loved by a Creator whose expectations and plans for us are as wide open as the Call of the West, then we may aspire to be worthy of that glorious legacy and press on in a manner of gratitude and industry. We should never lie about what constitutes the truth, but we should strive to tell the whole truth: that struggling men frequently wear both horns and halos, and that evil and good are not just relative commodities to be leisurely disparaged in some academic exercise. And this brings me home to my starting point.
Of all the alphabet networks whose signals curse the public airwaves, I find ABC/Disney to be the most grotesque: mostly because of how far the empire that Walt built has tumbled from its founding precepts. Tracking Disney’s debauchery is a barometer for the spiritual wretchedness of America; but to be honest here, the devil’s hands have been exceedingly busy all around the media dial. The loathsome “Modern Family” or the nauseating “Two Broke Girls” are but the most prominent scum layer epitomizing the flotsam that now passes for prime time entertainment in an industry gone berserk. In addition, if one pays even minimal attention to the scripts of today’s CSI crime genre, one oftentimes tunes into a “how-to” primer for mayhem and serial killing. And thanks to the writers of this fare, every psychopath knows he can cut the fingers and heads off his victims to thwart identification, or how to use fire or bleach on a rape victim’s anatomy to destroy a crime scene’s DNA evidence.
Only in a corrupted democracy do men claim that the lowest common denominator is a right, a prerequisite, and a virtue. But it was not always this way. Rough men like Adams and McCullough are not celebrated today or held up as yardsticks for our young boys to model. In their place, we are more apt to find the milquetoast metrosexual whose only distinction from his significant other is which anatomical part he waxes. I trust that this blurring of the gender lines will one day lose its grip on the Western consciousness, but I am afraid that this epiphany may only come about when what is artificial and scurrilous in America has been cauterized from our cultural vocabularies. Ward Bond’s wagon has long since trailed into the sunset, but his spirit lives as long as men huddle ‘round a campfire playing “two handed” with mavericks as memorable as the bristly Charlie Wooster -- swapping glories and suffering through the worst pot of coffee this side of Ol’ St. Joe.