10 great TV western series

Tune in and saddle up! With the BBC’s new western series The English world premiering at the BFI London Film Festival, we’re taking a trail through the history of the small-screen western.

13 October 2022

By David Parkinson

The English (2022)
London Film Festival

Set in the 1890s, Hugo Blick’s new six-part western series The English follows Englishwoman Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) as she joins forces with a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout (Chaske Spencer) to avenge the death of her son. Bound for BBC Two in November, following its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, it’s the latest in a 21st-century revival that continues the 75-year history of the small-screen western.

The genre’s television age began on 24 June 1949 with The Hopalong Cassidy Show. Initially this comprised edited versions of William Boyd’s big-screen horse operas, but original content was soon forthcoming, as other matinee idols like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers came to the TV Corral. 

Many early shows focused on lawmen, and the first series aimed more at grown-ups, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955 to 1961), followed suit. Drifters dominated The Range Rider (1951 to 1953), Cheyenne (1955 to 1962) and its spin-offs Sugarfoot (1957 to 1961) and Bronco (1958 to 1962), as well as Wanted Dead or Alive (1958 to 1961), which raised the profile of Steve McQueen. Chuck Connors came to the fore in Sam Peckinpah’s The Rifleman (1958 to 1963), as a settler raising his son.

What was so remarkable about the golden age TV western was its diversity, as it left behind violent tales of gunslingers and outlaws to reflect on how a nation was forged. There were trains (Casey Jones), boats (Riverboat) and planes (Sky King), as well as secret agents (The Wild Wild West), as the genre tried to compete with the crime and sci-fi shows that had started to dominate the schedules. Attempts were also made to attract a female audience with Annie Oakley (1954 to 1957), Death Valley Days (1952 to 1970), Little House on the Prairie (1974 to 1983), Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993 to 1998) and Wynonna Earp (2016 to 2021).

Since launching with McCloud in 1970, the neo-western, set in the modern west, has branched out with Walker, Texas Ranger (1993 to 2001) and Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013). More recently, the likes of Justified (2010 to 2015), Hell on Wheels (2011 to 2016), and Longmire (2012 to 2017) have brought the genre into the streaming era, while Westworld (2016-) and The Mandalorian (2019-) have taken it to new frontiers. 

The Lone Ranger (1949 to 1957)

Creators: George W. Trendle and George W. George

The Lone Ranger (1949-57)

“Who was that masked man?” First appearing on radio in 1933, the Lone Ranger was an American icon from the pre-superhero era. He was played in almost 1,300 episodes by Earle Graser before Clayton Moore took over for the small screen in September 1949 (Lee Powell and Robert Livingston having each headlined a cinematic serial in the late 1930s). 

Fighting for ‘truth and justice’, when not seeking to avenge his five murdered comrades, the former Texas Ranger could always rely on Tonto (Jay Silverheels), the resourceful Potawatomi brave who had saved his life, and his trusty steed, Silver. However, ABC discovered that Moore wasn’t as altruistic as his character, as he quit during a contract dispute and was replaced as ‘Keem-O-Sabe’ for 52 episodes by John Hart before making a penitent return.

Few other shows sought to present a Native American perspective, but Brave Eagle (1955 to 1956), starring Keith Larsen as a peace-loving Cheyenne chief, was a notable exception.

Gunsmoke (1955 to 1975)

Creators: Charles Marquis Warren and Clyde Ware

Gunsmoke (1955-75)

The most watched, enduring and important show in TV western history had started out on radio, with William Conrad voicing Marshal Matt Dillon – a role that would become synonymous over 20 seasons and 635 episodes with James Arness. Radio producer Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston had envisaged Dillon as the Philip Marlowe of the west. But the tele-version was markedly less hard-boiled (despite retaining a degree of moral ambiguity), as Dillon was abetted in maintaining law and order in 1870s Dodge City by Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), deputies Chester B. Goode (Dennis Weaver) and Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), and Long Branch saloon keeper, Kitty Russell (Amanda Bake). 

Expanding to hour-long episodes in 1961 and in colour from 1966, the series was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as America’s Iliad or Odyssey. Following its abrupt cancellation, Arness played Zeb Macahan in How the West Was Won (1976 to 1979).

Wagon Train (1957 to 1965)

Wagon Train (1957-65)

When Gene Roddenberry was developing Star Trek, he pitched it to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars”. Based on John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), the series started its run with Ward Bond and Robert Horton as the pioneers wending their way from St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Later, they were replaced by John McIntire and Robert Fuller.

The anthology format allowed the producers to hire rating-snagging guest stars, with Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan among those to make the invariably eventful trek. Even John Wayne contributed a vocal cameo under the name ‘Michael Morris’. Racking up 284 episodes across eight seasons and two networks, the series missed Bond after his sudden death in 1960. But the standards remained high and inspired similar trail shows like Tales of Wells Fargo (1957 to 1962), Pony Express (1959 to 1960) and The Young Riders (1989 to 1992).

Have Gun – Will Travel (1957 to 1963)

Creators: Herb Meadow and Sam Rolfe

Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-63)

Taking its title from the business card handed out by a post-civil war white knight, this was the first hybrid western series to capture the public imagination. When not dressed in black and troubleshooting for clients rich and poor, Paladin (Richard Boone) enjoys the finer things in life from his base at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco. A West Point graduate, a Union cavalry veteran and a skilled martial artist (long before TV’s Kung Fu), Paladin encountered his share of guest stars in need of his services over six seasons and 225 episodes and became such a cult figure that a radio spin-off was created with John Dehner in the lead. 

Some of the gloss was scuffed by a copyright infringement suit brought by rodeo rider Victor De Costa in 1974, by which time, Boone had ridden off to play a frontier forensics expert in Hec Ramsey (1972 to 1974).

Maverick (1957 to 1962)

Creator: Roy Huggins

Maverick (1957-62)

Bored with concocting ways for Clint Walker’s gentle giant to show his virtue in Cheyenne, writer Roy Huggins decided to build a show around an anti-hero. Budd Boetticher directed the pilot that set gambler Bret Maverick (James Garner) on his self-serving way, as he meandered between saloons and riverboats in search of easy money and a quick exit. From episode eight, he was joined by his brother, Bart (Jack Kelly), while cousin Beau (Roger Moore) briefly took Bret’s place after Garner fell out with the network. 

Several sequels and a 1994 Mel Gibson feature followed, but none matched the original. Renowned for lampooning shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, Huggins went on to demonstrate a skill for pastiche: the heroes of his Alias Smith and Jones (1971 to 1973) were clearly modelled on Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s lovable rogues in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Rawhide (1959 to 1965)

Creator: Charles Marquis Warren

Rawhide (1959-65)

The western has more reason to be grateful to Rawhide than any other TV oater, as it made a star of Clint Eastwood, who would be primarily responsible for the genre surviving into the 1990s. How different it all might have been had Eastwood’s co-star Eric Fleming instead taken up Sergio Leone’s invitation to star in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Fleming played trail boss Gil Favor, who was accompanied on a cattle drive from San Antonio, Texas to Sedalia, Kansas by ramrod Rowdy Yates (Eastwood). Seeking grit and authenticity, creator Charles Marquis Warren took cues from the diary of trail boss George C. Duffield and Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) to focus on the dynamics of working men getting the job done. 

Driven by Frankie Laine’s theme tune, all 217 episodes stressed how tough it was on the postwar plains. But things often proved trickier in the towns, which were populated by guest stars who had been corrupted by easy living.

Bonanza (1959 to 1973)

Creators: David Dortort and Fred Hamilton

Bonanza (1959-73)

Having as much in common with soaps like Dallas as conventional western shows, the long-running saga of the Cartwright family (430 episodes) broke new ground by using situations in Reconstruction America to comment on contemporary social and moral issues. At its heart was thrice-widowed rancher Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his three sons by different mothers, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Brandon). However, the Ponderosa was never the same after Blocker died in 1972. 

Cognisant of the success of The Big Valley (1965 to 1969) with Barbara Stanwyck, showrunner David Dotort also created The High Chaparral (1967 to 1971), which emulated Bonanza’s readiness to tackle injustice and prejudice, as Leif Erickson’s rancher dealt with his Mexican in-laws and Apache neighbours. Following a trio of TV movies, an attempt was made to prequelise the Cartwrights in Ponderosa (2001 to 2002), but it only lasted 20 episodes.

The Virginian (1962 to 1971)

Creator: Charles Marquis Warren

The Virginian (1962-71)

Derived from Owen Wister’s much-filmed 1902 novel, The Virginian was the first tele-western with 90-minute episodes. The Technicolor action was set on the Shiloh Ranch near Medicine Bow in the Wyoming Territory of the 1890s. While various owners came and went, the titular black-clad foreman (James Drury) and roisterous cowhand Trampas (Doug McClure) stayed the course over 249 episodes into a ninth season, when the title was changed to The Men from Shiloh (with a new theme by Ennio Morricone) and the property was taken over by an Englishman played by Stewart Granger. 

Counting Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson among its guest stars, the show was notable for its shifts of tone, from doughty drama to coy comedy. It even served as the pilot for Laredo (1965 to 1967), which followed Texas Ranger Neville Brand pursuing ne’er-do-wells along the Mexican border.

Deadwood (2004 to 2006)

Creator: David Milch

Deadwood (2004-06)

An 1870s South Dakota gold mining town is the backdrop to Deadwood, the eight-time Emmy-winning show centred on sheriff-cum-storekeeper Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Creator David Milch drew on primary sources to ensure its world was as authentic as possible, exploring in over 36 episodes how community comes from chaos and crisis. 

The show became renowned for its coarse language and the way in which historical figures drifted into the scene. The 2019 Deadwood: The Movie sought to tie up loose ends after the series was cancelled before its time.

Yellowstone (2018-)

Creators: Taylor Sheridan and John Linson

Yellowstone (2018-)

John Dutton (Kevin Costner) has enough on his plate running the vast Montana ranch abutting a national park. But life is made no easier by his wayward offspring – John, Jr (Josh Lucas), Jamie (Wes Bentley), Kayce (Luke Grimes) and Beth (Kelly Reilly) – or grasping property developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) and Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who want ‘stolen’ land restored to the Broken Rock Reservation. 

Co-created and written by Taylor Sheridan, this seething neo-western is recklessly violent, morally ambivalent and occasionally prone to melodramatics, as it seeks to fathom what drives red-state America. While admiring its visuals and chutzpah, critics have disparagingly compared it to Bonanza crossed with The Godfather or Game of Thrones. But it’s about to embark on its fifth season and has proved such a ratings sensation that it has spawned two sequels: 1883 (with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill) and 1923 (with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren).

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