April 2, 2013

You can't say that on TV - can you?

The following was originally posted at Our Word in slightly different form in 2010. It seems an appropriate question to ask, given the time of the year. It's not meant to be particularly polemic; just curious. Also, I didn't have time to write something original this week.

John Payne in The Restless Gun
The Restless Gun was a western that appeared on NBC from 1957-1959, starring John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) as Vint Bonner, a retired gunfighter who roamed the West in search of adventure - and usually found it.

Nowadays, we're always hearing about how television drama is so much more "adult" and "sophisticated" than it was back in the so-called "Golden Age" (which was far from golden for many series, truth be told). However, it's still striking what kinds of things used to be freely discussed on TV. One wonders if television is as open today.

In the episode "Dragon For a Day," Vint encounters John Fletcher, a teenager whose missionary parents have been slaughtered by a band of Yaqui Indians. John vows to kill every Indian he sees, while Vint tries to convince him that this these Yaquis are renegades, despised even by other Yaquis. In this exchange, the grief-stricken John turns against the faith of his parents, wondering where God was while they were being murdered.

Vint: I don't rightly know.

John: I know. He wasn't anywhere. He never was anywhere. And He never will be anywhere. Because there ain't no such thing as God!

Vint: Now wait just a minute.

John: How could He let them die like that? Suffer like that? How could He?

Vint: John, He let His own Son die. Let him be tortured, crucified.

John: But that was to prove that He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That was to prove something!

Vint: Maybe this was to prove something too.

John: Prove what?

Vint: (Long pause) It's said that God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

John: I can talk Bible talk with anybody. I was raised on it. And the Bible says "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." And I swear now before I die I'm going to kill one hundred Yaquis for my ma and one hundred Yaquis for my pa! On their graves I swear! So help me God, I'll do it!

Of course, John doesn't do it. In a conclusion that usually only happens on TV, the "good" Yaquis rescue John from the "bad" Yaquis, and John comes to realize that you can't judge an entire people based on the actions of only a few.

However, I remain struck by that conversation between John and Vint. Granted, Vint knows that he has to appeal to John in words the boy will find familiar. But still, the assumption here is that the words are just as familiar to Vint. Furthermore, while he wants to save John from a life of vengeance (and probably a short life at that), it seems just as important to Vint to preserve John's faith as well. In the long run, that may be the most important thing Vint can do.

I suppose many people today might find such dialogue too earnest, naive, stilted, even embarrassing. But it wasn't embarrassing back in the 50s, when programs like this were popular, just as it wasn't embarrassing back in the days of the Old West, when people really did think faith was important.  It's particularly interesting (but is it significant?) that it comes in a Western, not only the most truly American of storytelling forms, but a format that often lends itself to thinly-disguised morality plays.

I wonder if a screenwriter could write an conversation like that for mainstream television today without being laughed off the set?

2 comments

  1. It isn't just the dialogue. No characters in mainstream television are ever allowed to talk about religion, much less express a belief that God may not exist. Sure, sometimes (rarely) characters go to church, but they never talk *about* religion.

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    Replies
    1. You're right, Marty. Kind of that "I'm spiritual, not religious" thing. There's never any kind of serious discussion about the meaning behind the words.

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And now for something completely different.