18 October 2000 | dinky-4
The "Gold" from the TV Western's Golden Age
Perhaps the quintessential show from the Golden Age of TV westerns, this series ran from 1957 to 1965 and it had a simple but compelling format. Each week it told the story of one of the travelers on an 1870's "wagon train" making its way across the American West. This format thus combined the sweeping backdrop of an ever-changing frontier with the small, personal story of a single individual.
So popular did the show become that it attracted an impressive array of "guest stars" -- Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Rhonda Fleming, Barbara Stanwyck, Leslie Nielsen, Lee Marvin, etc.
The earlier shows in the series were probably the best since they featured Ward Bond as the leader of the wagon train and Robert Horton as his scout. Ward's death in 1960 and Horton's departure in 1962 weakened the series though it maintained a respectable level of production for several more years.
While the TV westerns that arose in the Eisenhower years are now nostalgically regarded as fine "family" entertainment, it's curious that they often showed their leading actors stripped half-naked and subjected to various forms of torture. "Wagon Train" was no exception. On the 1-15-1958 episode titled "The Gabe Carswell Story," for example, a bare-chested Robert Horton is staked out spreadeagle-style under the scorching sun and left to die by a villainous "half-breed." And in the 12-13-1961 episode titled "The Traitor," Horton is stripped to the waist, tied to a wagon wheel, and whipped across his bare back. In both cases the sado-masochistic nature of these sequences is emphasized rather than muted and the exposed muscularity of the actor is openly exploited.
While Ward Bond could never be replaced, many viewers looked kindly on his successor, John McIntire. Robert Fuller, however, never quite seemed adequate as Robert Horton's replacement.