If you are too young to be in the baby-boomer camp, you probably haven’t seen many, if any, traditional Westerns.
But the Western was once a genre every bit as vital as superheroes are now.
Today, we have Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America on movie screens and the Flash, Green Arrow and Daredevil on TV, among many others.
But in an earlier era, it was cowpokes and horseflesh in the Old West. The stakes were a bit smaller — a town or ranching district rather than the Earth or the universe — but the stories were about good overcoming evil, and heroes, sometimes damaged heroes, finding their way and doing the right thing in the end.
A familiar template, perhaps?
Westerns were a popular big-screen attraction from the silent era through the 1970s, and then on radio in the 1930s, so it was only natural they would pop up on commercial television in the 1950s.
In 1950, when Nielsen ratings began calculating the most popular TV shows, “The Lone Ranger” and “Hopalong Cassidy” were in the top 10. But those, and other Westerns — “The Gene Autry Show,” “The Roy Rogers Show,” etc. — were aimed squarely at children.
Then in 1955, “Gunsmoke” debuted, introducing the “adult Western,” leaving behind the juvenile approach of earlier programs and introducing characters and stories that were more mature, and also more violent, in an attempt to attract adults.
“Gunsmoke” would eventually become one of television’s biggest success stories, with an unprecedented 20-year run. But the half-hour, black-and-white drama wasn’t an instant hit. In fact, “Gunsmoke” didn’t crack Nielsen’s top 30 in its first year. But then, Season 2 found the program in the top 10, and for the next four years, “Gunsmoke” was the No. 1 show in the country.
And by 1959, there were 26 Westerns in prime time.
That year also saw the debut of “Bonanza,” an hourlong color Western about a widower and his adult sons running the biggest ranch in the Nevada territory, the Ponderosa. The show was unusual for its emphasis week to week on family loyalty and integrity as they encountered the usual villains, swindlers and damsels in distress.
Like “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” was slow to rise in the ratings, failing to make the top 30 its first year. But Season 2 rose to No. 17, and in its third season, "Bonanza" climbed into the top 10, where it stayed for the next decade, including three consecutive seasons in the No. 1 spot.
So it may be surprising that most episodes of “Bonanza” have never seen the light of home video. The show ran 14 seasons, and its owner, CBS/Paramount, has only been releasing high-quality season sets since 2009, with Season 8 finally making it to DVD this week.
And in that season is an episode that may be of interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two episodes, actually: “The Pursued, Part 1” and “The Pursued, Part 2,” which aired Oct. 2 and 9, 1966.
It was actually not uncommon for TV Westerns to do an episode or two (or three) about Mormons, usually regarding the persecution of pioneers. Especially the anthology-format shows, such as “Wagon Train,” “Zane Grey Theater” and “Death Valley Days,” but also such later programs as “The Big Valley” and “How the West Was Won." Even a flashback Old West episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” featured episodes focusing on Mormons.
But the two “Bonanza” episodes are unique.
The newly released season is actually a two-volume set, “Bonanza: The Official Eighth Season: Volume 1” (CBS/Paramount/DVD, 1966-67, five discs, 18 episodes, audio commentaries, featurettes, promos, photo galleries) and “Bonanza: The Official Eighth Season: Volume 2” (CBS/Paramount/DVD, 1967, four discs, 16 episodes, audio commentaries, short film: “Ponderosa Caravan,” promos, photo galleries).
The “Pursued” episodes are in “Volume 1,” with Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his two sons, Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon), riding into Beehive, Nevada, to do some horse-trading with Mormon rancher Heber Clauson (Eric Fleming).
They’re surprised to learn he’s a polygamist, living on his ranch with his wives, Susannah and Elizabeth Ann (Dina Merrill and Lois Nettleton, respectively), but they’re also shocked to see how the family is treated by Beehive residents, especially after they’re riled up by a local bully (Vincent Beck) with eyes for Susannah. And after the new parson (Booth Colman) preaches against the Clausons, things really get heated.
It’s a fairly routine story for Westerns of the time, but it benefits from solid performances by the cast (except for the wildly over-the-top Colman), vivid location shooting in Lone Pine, California, and a particular effort by the scriptwriters to be accurate in portraying Mormons.
At the end of the second episode, Merrill quotes the 13th Article of Faith in its entirety, something you won’t see anywhere else.
An audio commentary on the DVD says “The Pursued” was not included in Season 8 syndication packages, and in his book “Bonanza: A Viewer’s Guide to the TV Legend,” David R. Greenland writes that Pat Robertson’s cable Family Channel had exclusive rights to reruns of “Bonanza” in the 1990s but refused to air “The Pursued.”
For fans of “Bonanza,” or those interested in how Mormons have been portrayed in the media over the years, this new DVD release is a valuable resource and long overdue.