“Weighed down by anxieties they were largely helpless to resolve, audiences in the 1950s craved simplicity and clarity,” wrote literature professor Kathleen L. Spencer in her thoughtful book on Have Gun Will Travel. “The Western gave them a world in which social problems could be solved by direct action, including violence if necessary.”
|A cover painting from the Masked Rider pulp magazine.|
Pop culture historian J. Fred MacDonald observed, “What the TV Western was offering was open warfare, a protracted battle between obvious legality and illegality. At stake was control of civilization. There was neither time nor reason for studied response. The answer to each dilemma was obvious: enough strategy, enough muscle, enough gunpowder. Through the concerted application of the brains and brawn of good men, this form of adult entertainment showed, indeed advocated, an efficient way to tame the savage and rescue humanity.”
Spencer said, “In the process of exploring such issues, the TV Westerns of the 1950s provided models for how a man was supposed to act: protecting the weak, facing down the brigand (whether outlaw, marauding Indian or tyrannical cattle baron) to prevent them from abusing the innocent, even while restraining his own violent impulses within the boundaries of a rigorous ethical code. The Western hero, in his purest form, sacrificed himself to make a better world for others, to transform a nearly lawless frontier into a place where civilization could take hold.”
“There is no way to know how many viewers took these lessons to heart and and acted on them in the real world,” Spencer wrote. “Perhaps some of the idealistic college students who risked their lives to fight for civil rights for blacks in the South were inspired in part by the Westerner; certainly (as anecdotes reveal) some small but real percentage of the young men who volunteered to go fight in Vietnam were motivated by the television heroes of their childhood and adolescence.”
So why did these cowboy heroes, once so ubiquitous on TV and movies, ride off into the sunset? The answer is they did not. They merely donned disguises.
In all important respects, the western hero has become the superhero, now all dusted off, now streamlined and jet propelled. Civilization is still threatened, but now by forces tricked up as super criminals, alien invaders and supernatural monsters.
Like the western hero, the superhero is still simplistic in his solutions, still self-sacrificing in his ethics and still stands between us and the savage menaces of the frontier, but one that is no longer merely geographical. The superhero’s frontier is, as Rod Serling once intoned, “…a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination."