American Notebook: Debasement of a Tradition

American Notebook: Debasement of a Tradition

Among the staple TV Westerns is one called Colt .45. Its hero, as in most of these shows, is a cowboy-cop. The paces he was put through in an episode of a few months back—something titled “Gallows at Granite Gap”—exemplify the moral slant of all the TV action shows, a slant worth remarking on not only for its own grotesque sake, but also as a depressing reminder of how the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood action movie (before cinemascope) has been turned inside out by TV.

The Colt .45 skit went this way: A criminal known as the Comanche Kid is about to be hanged. A matron seeks out the Kid’s captors, Special Agent Colt and the neighborhood sheriff, to inquire about the prisoner’s true ancestry, for she suspects the Kid may be her long-lost son. He had been kidnapped by the Indians in. his infancy, but the mother hopes to ascertain his identity by means of a tell-tale scar on his chest. In a state of dramatic turmoil, she begs to be allowed to make this examination. Should the criminal prove to be her son, her joy of discovery will be scarred by the ghastly knowledge that she had given birth to a criminal type. Since she herself is an innocent mother-type, both Colt and the Sheriff feel for her and wish they could Do Something.

We have here an interesting and starkly simple situation, one which approximates to the primitively horrific and simple dilemmas of ancient tragedy, and which, in consequence, might have led (all within the half hour’s format) to the moment of recognition and then perhaps to a resounding speech by Mother as she reproached the dooming paradoxes of fate, her eyes fixed all the while on her flesh-and-blood being marched off to his death. Or she might have risen to the more complex action of Choice and committed herself to death by her son’s side as she attempted vainly to help him escape. Remaining, therefore, within the Code, the action might still have played itself out to a dignified and rousing conclusion. But what happens?

Sheriff leads Mother to the outlaw’s cell. The Kid lurks in the shadows, a jauntily tilted sombrero covering half his face. He bares his chest, and it proves to be unscarred. Mother is so relieved that she explodes with a holier-than-thou crack at the Kid’s expense: “I feel sorry for you”—then hastens away to catch the next coach back home, safe in the shelter of her stance as the wide-eyed, innocent mother type.

But when the cell’s incumbent removes his sombrero he proves to be —you guessed it—none other than the Special Agent, his vapid face contorted in a big “sheepish grin.” The End.