Sunday, December 4, 2011
OFF KILTER TV: Where Horror Rears its Ugly Head on Family Television
The Weird Western* Lassos the Rawhide TV Show
Reviewed by Anthony Servante
When we watch family television, we have certain expectations about the plots and the behavior of the characters. We expect Lucille Ball to get into and out of trouble; we expect Scully and Mulder to encounter supernatural phenomena. What we don’t expect is Lucy taking on monsters or Mulder stealing John Wayne’s cement footprints from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. When the unexpected happens on our favorite shows, I call them Off Kilter TV.
In today’s column we will take a look at the 60s TV Western, RAWHIDE and an episode called, “Incident of the Four Horsemen”, written by Charles Larson, who wrote for the TV show, One Step Beyond, and directed by Thomas Carr, who directed for Adventures of Superman and Dick Tracy.
What I like about Rawhide is that the stories are always on the verge of the supernatural: a mysterious figure in black follows the drovers, killing them off one by one, the Murder Steer (a bull with the word ‘murder’ branded on its side) appears and whoever sees it soon after dies; there’s the rolling wagon with no driver, a supposedly haunted Indian Burial Ground, and a zombie Indian, but the episodes always end with an explanation: the figure in black is a man who murdered his wife and child and seeks his own death by killing others; the Murder Steer is planted by a corrupt judge who plans a crime; the zombie Indian was just very ill and never really died as his tribe believed. However, in the episode, “Incident of the Four Horsemen”, it turns out to be a true supernatural tale, an Off Kilter TV yarn closer to weird than western.
Let’s first refresh our memories as Rawhide is over 50 years old. The western TV show revolves around a cattle drive of about 3000 head of steer, the trail boss, Gil Favor (Eric Fleming), the second in command, ramrod Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), Wishbone, the cook (Paul Brinegar), and the 20 or so drovers played by regular and guest actors from week to week.
In the Four Horsemen episode, the drive is stalled between two feuding families, and in Romeo and Juliet-style, a young man from one family, Louden, and a young woman from the other, Galt, marry, triggering a murder and fueling the feud toward a full-scale war. One by one, each of the horsemen arrive as the war nears. Here we need to get a little biblical guidance before we resume the episode analysis. The coming of the horsemen heralds the Apocalypse, that is, the final battle between Christ and the Antichrist for the souls of mankind, and these riders are known traditionally as Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence. The head of one family is Galt (God?), and the other is Louden (Lucifer?); it is difficult to say who is the good one and the evil one in that their names are interchangeable with double meaning: for instance, Galt can be gaunt or god, while Louden can be Lucifer or Lord. This ambiguity causes us to focus on the horsemen rather than the families, just as in the biblical Apocalypse there will be false prophets and one will not be able to tell the rise of the antichrist from the second coming of Christ. Many souls will be lost as they choose the wrong side.
So, in the Rawhide episode, the family feud on the brink of battle represents the coming Apocalypse. Thus, the first horseman to appear is War: Initially, we meet Gus Marsden (Claude Atkins); get it, Mars, Roman god of war? The den of war. Nudge, nudge. His first act is to instigate the murder of Carl Galt (Edward Faulkner) right after the marriage between Amy Galt and Frank Louden. Next we meet Ben Kerran (carrion?) (John Dehner) who plays the horseman Death. We can tell he’s Death because Wishbone finds him dead and buries him, and a few seconds later, he rises from the grave. Of course, Favor hires him immediately. When Marsden and Kerran meet, they get on like old acquaintances, for what is war without death?
The horsemen, Famine and Pestilence, are found in a ghost town. They are called Hombre and White. Hombre represents famine as he eerily eats nonstop for the rest of the episode. White is pestilence as he coughs nonstop, a cough deep inside where no medicine can reach, as he points out. Soon, the two horsemen join the others and the four are now together, ready for the families to begin their bloodshed so they can thrive. Only Gil Favor stands between the four men and their goal. Favor must drive the cattle across the river, preventing any of the armies from using the steer to feed their warfare. But the Four Horsemen are not going to make it easy for him.
As Kerran reminds Favor that he’s driving the herd straight into a brewing war, the trail boss points out that he makes his own fate, thus alluding to free will and that the outcome is not predetermined. He tries to convince Louden not to go to war, but Galt and Kerran barge in on them. Kerran (Death) pushes the newlywed groom to make it seem like he’s reaching for a gun and Galt shoots him. The horseman tells Favor that he was trying to push him out of harm’s way, the same lie Marsden used to trigger the first murder, of Carl Galt, that brought them to the brink of battle.
Favor is not deterred and plans to cross the river. Marsden, Kerran, White and Hombre sit atop their horses on the other side of the river and the herd refuses to cross. It is then that someone says that the four men are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and call Kerran by the name Death. Favor insists that the sun is in the cows’ eyes and they just need to wait a few hours for the sun to be overhead. But war threatens. Marsden and Kerran are steely-eyed, White coughs away, and Hombre continues to eat. The trail boss challenges Kerran to a fight, winner takes all; if Kerran wins, he claims the lives of everyone, including the cattle’s, but if Favor wins, war will be averted and the cattle can cross the river.
So, it’s mano a mano with Gil Favor versus Death. Since we can’t have the hero of the show get killed, Favor wins, and Kerran admits that his timing was off, that it was not yet Favor’s time, but that he’ll be back. War is averted, the cattle cross, the family feud is settled, and the Four Horsemen ride off.
You can watch the episode in its entirety on YouTube below.
Much of the fun of this supernatural episode is the weak attempt to explain away the strange behavior of the drovers (some come down with a bad cough, similar to White’s, others choose sides for or against Galt and Louden, and many are driven to drink to handle the pressure of impending war), but the best they could come up with is the sun got in the cow’s eyes. Throughout the episode there is talk of devils and demons, god and man’s place in a godless land. Through it all, as Favor tries to talk sense to his men, we as viewers cannot ignore all that has transpired, the deviousness of Marsden and Kerran, the insatiable appetite of Hombre, and that wicked cough deep in White. Still, “Incident of the Four Horsemen” can be added to the list of Weird Westerns and to the list of Off Kilter TV shows brought to you by yours truly.
Until next we meet with another Off Kilter TV program, keep the TV on in the darkness.
(**NOTE** See this month’s Servante of Darkness column on the Weird Western for more background. See also the September issue of The Black Glove for an Off Kilter TV look at Bonanza: Twilight Town, another Weird Western episode.)