If it wasn’t for Rawhide, Clint Eastwood may never have become a director (or at least a good one). Seriously. I’m also not just basing this off my own observations. Eastwood has said as much when interviewed about his 8 years doing the show. Now you have all, I’m sure, heard of Rawhide. If you’ve never seen the show, you have most certainly heard its famous theme song (also briefly sung by Eddie Murphy in Shrek 2), which you can see in the following clip:

Rawhide came out in 1958 when the western genre dominated both film and television. Set in 1869, it follows the adventures of a group of cowboys led by trail boss, Gil Favor (Eric Fleming, who drowned somewhere in South America while shooting a film) as they steer 3,000 heads of cattle along the Sedalia Trail from Texas to Missouri. Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) is one of Gil Favor’s cowboys along with Joe Scarlet (Pete Nolan) and a host of others. Paul Brinegar plays the usually grumpy cook, Wishbone. Each episode opens with Favor giving an opening narration of what life on the cattle trail is like. The episodes usually involved the group encountering people along the Sedalia Trail and getting involved in whatever problems those people presented or were confronted with. Sometimes some of the members of the group would head into a nearby town and get into trouble. Other times, the episode would take place in the countryside. Rowdy is the hothead of the group and, not surprisingly, gets involved with all the women he encounters. Favor is the stern, clear-headed voice of reason who drives his herders hard (and usually has to rein in Rowdy).

Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect out of this show when I first sat down to watch the first season. I have come to enjoy westerns over the years, but I wouldn’t put myself in the same league as my father, who devours westerns the way I do comic books. The premise of this show didn’t sound very interesting. After all, who the hell would want to watch week after week a group of cow herders driving cattle up a few states? Thats like watching the adventures of a milkman. It was to my astonishment that I ended up really enjoying Rawhide and warming up to the characters. This is not a show that would survive in the current American television landscape and upon reflection, thats pretty sad. The show harkens back to a golden age in television where the good and the bad guys were clearly defined and the problems were on the whole simple and straightforward. You didn’t have antiheroes or characters with an ambiguous sense of morality. You knew who was good and who was bad.

I know this makes me sound like I prefer my stories to be simplistic and easy to digest, but nothing can be further from the truth. I do gravitate toward complex and intellectually sophisticated storytelling, but I also believe that society can benefit from good, old-fashioned stories that give us clear heroes and villains. This has been an on-going debate in the comic book industry as publishers have made their classic superheroes like Superman and Batman “darker,” grittier, and more “realistic.” Publishers, studios, and networks seem to think that because their audiences have become more sophisticated, they will be turned off by simplistic, childish stories and characters. I obviously can’t vouch for the rest of my generation, but I can tell you that never once did I feel like Rawhide was dumbing itself down to me or that I didn’t find its old-fashioned stories and characters to be less interesting than the kind of fare I’ll find in my cinema and television. To the contrary, characters like Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates made me wish for the return of the classic hero figure.

One of the things I really looked forward to with each Rawhide episode was to see what famous actor/actress would star in that week’s episode. In the first season, you get treated to a great performance by DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy) as a villain gunman (yes, Dr. McCoy as a villain!), McDonald Carey, Lon Chaney, Jr., Brian Keith, Martin Landau, an unrecognizable Leslie Nielsen, and a young Dick Van Patten. Its great to watch these actors, many of whom were just beginning in their careers.

I was particularly struck by the show’s high production value. For some reason, I never figured television shows in the 50’s would come close to matching the production quality of their cinematic counterparts due to their lower budgets. Rawhide really surprised me in how beautifully shot it was, the careful attention put into creating the sets (especially the towns), and the extensive use of real outdoor locations. At times, you forget you’re watching a TV show and I found myself enjoying an episode as much as I would in watching a western film.

Rawhide is also noteworthy for tackling controversial issues. One episode deals with the treatment of Native Americans, another deals with anthrax, and yet another handles the mistreatment of Mexicans. Of course, this being the 1950’s, the show is not without its stereotypes. For instance, although some episodes had women characters as independent landowners, women are secondary and weak compared to the men. An episode featuring a gang of Mexicans as the villains portrays them in a stereotypical fashion and, what’s almost worse, the actors playing them were not Mexican (the same goes with Indian characters, who were usually played by white actors). However, all in all, I was not expecting to be enlightened by Rawhide’s treatment of political and social issues. I was impressed enough by how much it actually did take on controversial issues.

Rawhide is a fun show and its something the whole family can enjoy. Its old-fashioned and its as American as apple pie. Even early in his career, Clint Eastwood had a great screen presence and exhibited good acting skills. All the characters are well developed and very likable. I wasn’t expecting to like this show to the degree that I did and I even felt a little sad by the last episode. Below are some clips I grabbed from the show that I found a little funny or interesting.