Monday, September 23, 2013

The High Chaparral: Still Riding High After All These Years

The cast of The High Chaparral.
By the mid-1960s, Western family sagas--spurred by the popularity of Bonanza--dominated the U.S. television landscape. In addition to the Cartwrights, there were the Barkleys (The Big Valley), the Lancers (Lancer), the Shermans (Laramie), the McCains (The Rifleman), and many others. Most of these families were headed by a single parent, usually a widowed father. An exception was The High Chaparral, which was created late in the cycle by David Dortort, a producer-writer who hit the jackpot with Bonanza in 1959. By 1967, Dortort had ceded the reins of Bonanza to his associates so he could focus on his new Western.

The pilot episode of The High Chaparral follows the journey of the Cannon  family en route to a new beginning in the Arizona Territory in the 1870s. The family includes: "Big John" Cannon (Leif Erickson); his wife Annalee (Joan Caufield); young adult son Billy Blue (Mark Slade); and John's brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell). Along with the usual perils of frontier travel, the Cannons discover that a Mexican landowner covets their new ranch and that the local Apaches are hostile. During an Apache raid, Annalee is killed and John's strained relationship with his son comes to a head.

John and Victoria looking formal.
With future Apache attacks a certainty, John reaches a truce with neighbor Don Sebastian Montoya and--to seal their deal--marries Don Sebastian's daughter Victoria (Linda Cristal). Victoria's rakish brother Manolito (Henry Darrow) joins his sister at the High Chaparral--Annalee's name for the Cannon ranch--and a new "family" is formed.
What sets The High Chaparral apart from other 1960s Westerns is its evolving family relationships. The Big John-Victoria relationship progresses from one of mutual respect to genuine love. Buck's relationship with Blue evolves from supportive uncle to de facto father at times (e.g., when Blue decides to leave the High Chaparral, it's Buck that goes after him and convinces him to return). Buck and Manolito--two kindred spirits when it comes to having a good time--act more like brothers than Buck and John.

"Brothers" Buck and Mano.
The concept of "blended families" in TV Westerns was nothing new in the 1960s. The brothers in Bonanza each had a different mother. Heath Barkley was the illegimate son of Victoria's husband in The Big Valley. The two brothers in Lancer are stepbrothers and one of them was half-Mexican. However, The High Chaparral went further than its predecessors by creating a blended family of different cultures. Hispanic characters such as Victoria, Manolito, and Don Sebastian simply don't play supporting roles; they are major characters that frequently drive the plot lines. Likewise, their cultural values and their passion for their native Mexico plays an important part in episodes such as "A Good Sound Profit" (about equipping an army to overthrow Mexican leader Benito Juarez).

The High Chaparral debuted in 1967 in the Sunday 10 P.M. timeslot, immediately following Bonanza on NBC. The next year, it moved to Fridays, where it remained for the rest of its four-year run. While The High Chapparal scored decent ratings, it never cracked the Nielsen Top 20 shows for a season. Western dramas had also begun to fade from the television landscape. Less than two years after High Chapparal's cancellation  in 1971, even Bonanza came to the end of its 14 seasons.

Over the last four decades, The High Chaparral has attracted a loyal following (click here to visit an in-depth web site created by its fans). Surprisingly, the series has never been released on DVD in the U.S., although the show's fans rave about a region-free DVD set produced in the Netherlands. And if you've never seen The High Chaparral and want to sample it, you can watch it currently on the INSP cable network.

5 comments:

  1. One of the favourites of my youth. The theme set up the dramatics and, as I recall, it always delivered.

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  2. I really liked this show at the time, and have been wondering why no dvd release. Great soundtrack.

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  3. Thank you for spotlighting one of my favorite TV shows. Thanks to the complicated, evolving relationships, the extensive location shooting, and the large, consistently used supporting cast (the "bunkhouse boys"), THE HIGH CHAPARRAL has a realism lacking from other Westerns of the era, especially BONANZA (ironic since they were both David Dortort shows). I've been revisiting the show over the last year and have been happy to find my childhood memories of the show being really good were accurate.

    I have the Season 1 set from the Netherlands and it's beautiful. (Although it's labeled region-free, it won't play on my older DVD player, but I have an all-region player which plays them just fine.) I'd like to get the next couple seasons available when I can!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  4. My favorite TV western. I love all of the characters, especially Victoria and I think the incorporation of so much of the Apache and Mexican culture into the show really makes it stand out. Dortort commented in interviews that he was unhappy with the direction "Bonanza" took (he described it as becoming "Father Knows Best Out West") and was determined his next venture, THC, would be more realistic.

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  5. Count me in as another who enjoyed this in syndication growing up (usually aired late Sunday nights locally). One of my faves, Marie Gomez, had a recurring role as Perlita and "Stinky Flanagan" with Gomez and guest star Frank Gorshin, was probably my single favorite episode.

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