By Carol Rushton
When I was growing up, westerns were all the rage, both on television and in movie theaters. I didn’t watch many of these westerns as a child. In fact, I hated westerns. I loved music and musicals, so that’s what I migrated to, even when I became an adult. The closest I ever got to watching a western was the old TV show Dallas – which was actually a soap opera set in the 1980s, not in the American Old West.
Since I did not have a television all the years I lived in Israel, I was out of touch with what was going on in American culture and society and how it had influenced TV shows and movies during the 1990s. After I returned to the United States in 2000, I was shocked at how sexual debauchery was so easily accepted by the public on both the small and big screen. The longer I tried to watch TV, the fewer shows I watched. The shows were either stupid or sexually explicit or both, so much so that I in good conscience could not watch them. When the change from analog to digital was made, I didn’t replace the television given to me by friends.
I only have a computer now but a few years ago I decided to see if there were any old, clean TV shows or movies on YouTube that I could watch for free. I liked the theme music for The Big Valley, so I started watching the 1960 episodes of the show.
I discovered in watching The Big Valley that I have a new appreciation for the old westerns. These shows were absent of so many of the things I find so revolting in shows and movies made today. Swearing is rarely heard and no explicit sex scenes are shown. The most any of the characters do is kiss, way too tame for American audiences today. People actually thought that a relationship should lead to marriage. Imagine that. The main characters also exhibited a strong sense of decency and morality – right is right and wrong is wrong. These are things rarely seen on TV in 2018 America.
I also realized that these types of shows would never make it in today’s politically correct social environment. They would be quashed before they made it to the pilot stage, deemed too controversial for any studio to make.
For instance, there is the issue of how religion and morality are portrayed in The Big Valley. Even though the main characters are not our modern notion of born-again, evangelical Christians, they had a respect for Christians and the Church, as well as demonstrating and honoring values such as hard work, honesty, goodness, and virtue.
The very first episode has Barbara Stanwyck, that great American actress and the matriarch of the Barkley family, saying a prayer at the end of the show as the family is starting to eat breakfast. Horror of horrors! Someone call the ACLU! Some of the shows revolved around churches, ministers, and Christian themes, all treated with great respect (although is hard to swallow Linda Evans, the actress who went on to play Krystle Carrington in Dynasty, as a Bible teacher). I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth now by the atheists and secular humanists now. How dare the network put this show on the air! Think of all the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and atheists they are offending! I guess offending Christians and Jews is not important.
Then there is the matter of what is now called “cultural appropriation.” Imagine how Martin Landau (Mission Impossible) playing a Mexican, Katherine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) playing the daughter of a Mexican, Pernell Roberts (Bonanza) playing an Irishman, or Louise Sorel, a Jew and soap opera veteran, playing a gypsy would go over in today’s culturally sensitive atmosphere, not to mention how Mexicans, Greeks, Chinese, and Spaniards in post-Civil War California were portrayed. Silas, the only reoccurring black character, who is a servant in the Barkley home, would certainly not go over very well, either. The stereotypes portrayed in the show would have the social justice warriors outraged and horrified. They would come out in force to condemn the show, probably holding protests in front of the television studio.
Almost every man in the show wore a gun. Stanwyck, Evans, and other women were shown as shooting or handling guns and rifles as naturally as walking in the long, floor-length dresses of the time. The Brady Campaign would not be the only anti-gun group going after this show. The hew and cry against simply showing holsters and ammunition, much less actually shooting someone in self-defense, would be overwhelming.
Last but not least is the treatment of animals. Cattle drives, horses being whipped by reins to go faster, or even worse a steer being roasted on a spit would certainly raise the hackles of PETA and other animal rights groups. I shudder to think what they would do after seeing the episode in which Nick Barkley (Peter Breck) traps an eagle. They would have a cow!
The show would get no points for being strongly anti-slavery. For example, in the episode “Court Martial,” the Barkleys become involved in trying to catch a Confederate spy who helped to plan the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (I won’t tell you how it ends but it’s a brilliant show, had me fooled to the end).
Nor would the show be praised for standing up for free speech. In one of the episodes, Jerrod Barkley (Richard Long), a lawyer and a son of Victoria Barkley (Stanwyck), decides to defend an anarchist, a very unpopular move among the town of Stockton’s residents, including his own family. Jerrod strongly condemns the anarchist’s viewpoint but just as staunchly defends the anarchist’s right to say what he believes. How novel.
It is not surprising that TV westerns have disappeared along with bell-bottom jeans and bouffant hairdos and will probably never return. Some Americans say that we have progressed beyond the archaic values shown in westerns, we are more sophisticated and educated. Americans have actually regressed, not progressed. Our country has rejected the morals and values our citizens once cherished and upheld, principles that are now viewed with scorn and derision. Certainly, technological and scientific achievements in the last 50 years have made our lives better and easier. But in many ways, our country has lost precious things which we may never be able to regain, things that can only be found in old TV westerns like The Big Valley.