Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Into the West: Ethics and the Gunfighter in "Have Gun--Will Travel"

The 1960s were the Golden Age of the television Western with such classic series as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, and Rawhide. In defining the "best" Western of the decade, one could easily argue the merits of a dozen or so series. However, when it comes to television's most memorable Western character of the 1960s, the answer is clearly Paladin from Have Gun--Will Travel.

A resident of the upscale Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, Paladin is a gentleman of refined tastes. He smokes only the finest imported cigars, wears expensive tailored suits, tips lavishly, and has a regular boxed seat at the opera house. No one knows exactly what he does for a living. In one episode, the desk clerk remarks:  "He must have investments all over the West. He's always going away on business trips."

Paladin's profession, of course, is as a gunfighter for hire. He selects his jobs carefully, usually by reading newspapers from throughout the region and honing in on situations that interest him. In "A Matter of Ethics," an episode from the first season, Paladin reads about a convicted murderer who fears he will be lynched before his trial. Paladin offers his services simply  by sending an envelope containing his business card (shown at right).

Paladin meets his prospective client Holgate (Harold J. Stone) aboard a train heading to Bender, Wyoming. Holgate, who's in the sheriff's custody, explains that the son of Max Bender--the man who founded the town--"caught a bullet" from him. For a fee of $200, Paladin agrees to ensure that Holgate is delivered safely to trial.

When they arrive in Bender, Paladin learns that the dead man's sister, Amy (a dark-haired Angie Dickinson), has been "stirring the pot" for a lynching. While he doesn't condone her actions, Paladin is sympathetic toward Amy: "She can't strap on a gun and fight this with her own hands."

By the end of the episode, guns have been fired and two people are dead. But, as is often the case with Have Gun--Will Travel, the outcome is unexpected and yet satisfying. Paladin honors his contract, gets paid, and maintains his code of ethics along the way. In one of the best scenes in the episode, Paladin explains his ethics by quoting two passages from Robert Browning--as the sheriff and Holgate gaze at him with perplexed expressions.

Richard Boone, who forged a solid if unspectacular screen career, is superb as Paladin. I can't imagine anyone else in the part...or really parts. Paladin is almost a man of dual personas: the gentleman dressed in white and the gunfighter garbed in black. They are one and the same person, of course. The gentleman gets tough in a few episodes and the gunfighter, as previously noted, quotes poetry and still smokes those fine cigars. It's like the black and white pieces on a chess board, one side of the game board mirroring the other. It's an appropriate analogy given the chess piece--the knight--inscribed on Paladin's card and holster.

"A Matter of Ethics"," written by series co-creator Sam Rolfe, is a strong outing in an outstanding TV series. In addition to Dickinson, it features a nice supporting turn by Strother Martin as an attorney that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. It's a good introduction to a great series. Start with it and you can look forward to even better episodes penned by the likes of Bruce Geller (the man behind Mission: Impossible) and Gene Roddenberry (who created some sci fi show that aired in the late 1960s).


  1. Great post, Rick. I like your idea of "dual personas." It's especially interesting to see an episode like "A Matter of Ethics", where Paladin is sitting at the cozy hotel, looking like a gentleman. If it's your intro to the show, you might think, "This is the guy who offers his gunfighting services?" (I know I did). And as you said, as a gunfighter, Paladin still retains that gentleman quality.

  2. Rick, Wonderful post! I remember him as being a Suave, believable, character only true to himself. I may have to add Have Gun Will Travel to my growing DVD collection.

  3. Rick, I remember this western show. It had an original plot. I was thinking that Paladin had a college degree, but I may be wrong. Haven't seen the show in many years. Paladin had a beautiful horse and I always remember the lovely horses in westerns!! My Dad taped a Richard Boone movie called The Last Dinosaur for my son. He watched it over and over. My favorite movie with Richard Boone is Against a Crooked Sky. I liked Have Gun-Will Travel. I miss westerns. Enjoyed your review and Dawn is right about Paladin being a suave charater!

  4. I enjoyed reading your comments, everyone! The first three season of HGWT are available in a boxed set. I highly recommend it. The fourth season was just released this month and I've never seen those episodes (well, maybe i saw some as a wee lad, but don't remember them).

  5. Rick , one of the things about Have Gun Will Travel was the Quality of the Co- Stars, and the Directors. Check out this not complete list: Andrew V. Maclaglen 101 episodes, Richard Boone 22 episodes, Buzz Kulik 11 episodes, Lamount Johnson 10episodes, Ida Lupino 7 episodes, William Conrad 4 episodes, Richard Donner 3 episodes, and Lewis Milestone 2 episodes. Quite a list.

  6. Yes, Paul, the directors were a very talented were the previously mentioned writers. The guest stars weren't too shabby either--they included Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Peter Falk, Victor McLaglen, Martin Balsam, Andrew Prine, and many others.

  7. Rick do you know who (other then hey boy) had the most episodes on Have Gun Will Travel?

  8. I am quite a fan of "Have Gun Will Travel" and have truly enjoyed the boxed set. Richard Boone is excellent and your description of him as "the gentleman dressed in white and the gunfighter garbed in black" is spot on accurate. The last thing Paladin ever wants to do is fire his gun; he seeks to conclude every situation peacefully. We could all learn a lot from his reticence and resolve.

  9. Three Great Paladins...

    (1) El Paso Stage - Paladin, unknowingly, has been hired by a father to kidnap his son (won't spoil the why). When Paladin refuses...the psychopathic town marshal roughs Paladin up and later sends Paladin on the stage home. Do you think for a minute that Paladin will stand for that?? Best Paladin episode..imo..penned by Gene Roddenberry.

    (2) A Quiet Night In Town - This masterpiece penned by Harry Julian Fink is simply about a suspected murderer being brought to a quiet little town on the Texas border and the reaction of four bored cowhands to Paladin and his prisoner. Classic two part episode.

    (3) Death Of A Gunfighter - Paladin befriends a troubled gunfighter...he's in love with a young Suzanne Pleshette...but she's fallen in love with a humble, respectable and harmless man. I don't think the troubled gunfighter will like that.

    Also recommended...

    Genesis - How Paladin was born.

    Memories of Monica - Classic story of a wife's love but her husband is another story. Great script. Don't miss this one.

    The Predators - Paladin is sure he has captured the man who killed a sheriff in cold blood. Has he?

    Return To Fort Benjamin - An indian is framed for murder and imprisoned at an Army Fort. Paladin knows the indian is innocent but is determined that the indian will be returned to his father...the chief given an indian burial despite Army regulations.

    First You Must Catch A Tiger - Paladin has been marked for death by a killer that shoots in the back. He is told where the killer is staying. When Paladin gets there...he sees multiple suspects and the real stress for Paladin begins. One of the best.

    Episode In Laredo - Paladin stops overnight at a hotel on his way back to San Francisco and befriends a famed gunfighter. Classic TV western tale.

    The Scorched Feather - Lon Chaney, Jr plays the part of an Indian Scout whose son has two very contrasting personalities...odd but great episode.

    1. El Paso Stage
      A Quiet Night In Town
      Death Of A Gunfighter
      Memories of Monica
      The Predators
      Return To Fort Benjamin
      First You Must Catch A Tiger
      Episode In Laredo
      The Scorched Feather

      Episode Selection originally posted by SGR

  10. One of my all-time favorite shows, which I only discovered a few years ago, thanks to DVD and Encore Western channel. So well written and such an interesting character who valued reason above violence yet was very aware of the irony of his chosen profession...

  11. As a child I loved watching this with my Dad and now again watching with him in his 80's. Richard Boone was an excellent actor and Paladin was a classically designed medieval hero. BTW the "paladins" who numbered 12 were the companions of Roland and the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court and examples of Christian martial valor. Note use of the number 12, like the 12 Apostles. Thanks for this blog!

  12. I have been hooked on Lawson for years

  13. Love Richard Boone..