|ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE NICK ADAMS AS JOHNNY YUMA IN THE REBEL|
These are all heavy questions, and in case you haven't already figured it out, this is going to be one of those kinds of pieces. If you'd rather take a pass on it, I'll understand - just come back on Friday to check out some more neat stuff. If you hang on, though, I think you'll find this at least a stimulating discussion that goes far deeper than simply a television show.
As I said, there are many questions involved in our premise. The Rebel does not answer these questions; indeed, it only obliquely raises them. But raise them it does, in such a way that it compels serious consideration of those questions, and causes one to look at how a television show, as a product of its own time, engages with such topics.
The Rebel*, which ran on ABC for two seasons from 1959 to 1961, starred Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a veteran of the war who'd fought on the Confederate side, and his adventures roaming the West while looking for meaning in his own life. That in itself carries an air of existentialism, not all that different from programs as varied as Route 66 and Then Came Bronson. As much as the series itself, though, it is the show's premise, and Adams' personal involvement in its creation, that pique my interest. Indeed, I freely admit at the outset that I've never even seen an episode of The Rebel. I suppose that makes this essay even more existential, the equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat - if I actually watch the show, does the question still exist? Enough of that, though - let's get down to business.
*Produced by Goodson-Todman, The Rebel was one of their few non-game show programs.
The impetus for this piece is a very fine article written at Television's New Frontier: the 1960s, a though-provoking piece which I can admire even as I disagree with its premise. In the process of reviewing the series, the author Beestguy makes a number of associations between the Civil War and the underlying premise of the program - assertions about the nature of the war, the reasons it was fought, and the principles for which the Confederacy stood - that instantly got me thinking. Depending on how one feels about the whole thing, the answers can tell a lot about what The Rebel means, and how it reflects America's DNA.
Beestguy's theory, and his subsequent commentary, rests upon the premise that the South was a culture of collective thought, that the only reason for the Civil War was slavery, and that the rebels (as we will call them) had a single specific goal, that to preserve what they referred to as the Peculiar Institution – an institution with which by necessity they must be in whole-hearted agreement.
The problem with this theory – and I promise this will eventually connect up to The Rebel – is that it isn’t consistent with the bulk of American history. Any number of revisionist historians will argue, from a number of perspectives, that the true nature of the Civil War, for both North and South, was over economics – the manufacturing of the North vs. the agrarian of the South. At this point in the discussion, that’s neither here nor there; it’s important merely to note that it exists.
Of far more historical precedence is the definition and nature of nationhood, of what it means to belong to both a state and a country. Overlooking this element of the conflict is to ignore how many Southerners, including a fair number of the Founding Fathers, thought of themselves first as residents of their state, i.e. Virginians, and only second as Americans. While we’ve been taught that the necessary elements of the Civil War go all the way back to the founding of the United States, the element that is most often focused on, to the exclusion of the rest, is slavery, when in fact the rights of the state vs. the rights of the nation were at least as important, particularly when it came to the ratification of the Constitution.
Understanding this is why we can understand how Robert E. Lee, perhaps the most brilliant military mind in United States history (at least up to that point), a man wooed by both North and South to govern their armies, came to the agonizing decision to fight for the South. Lee had hoped Virginia would not secede, thought that it would bring bloodshed more than anything else, but stayed loyal to Virginia and resigned his U.S. Army commission to lead the Southern armies. "I could not raise my hand against my home and my family," he says by way of explanation, and his private letters emphasize the agony surrounding his decision, despite his conventional (for the South, for the time) opinion that slaves were, indeed, property.
During the ratification debate, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) voiced his apprehension over the Constitution, writing that “our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the states will be relinquished” should it pass as presented. “Is this a confederacy,” he asked, “like Holland - an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty?” One thing was for sure: “It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely.”
Yes, I know this is a TV website, which is what it will remain, so we’re not going to go too deeply into the history lesson here. My point, and I do have one, is that divided loyalties were a given from the founding of the country, and those divisions could be most clearly seen in the South. Again, it is important to accept this as the backdrop whenever discussing the Civil War as being strictly, or even primarily, about slavery.
Now, this brings us back to The Rebel. For Nick Adams personally, there must have been a great deal of symbolic appeal to casting himself as a veteran of the Confederacy. In real life, Adams was a frustrated Hollywood actor who sought his own series because he was tired of his many supporting roles in movies and "desperately wanted to be a star." This reading extends as we look at the premise of The Rebel. Adams’ Johnny Yuma is a man who has spurned his home town and people of the North and chosen instead to fight for the Confederacy. The reasons are never entirely clear, although there is “a vague reference to his wanting to get away from home during a troublesome time, a suggestion that perhaps he did not get along with his father.”
The Confederacy, in this sense, becomes a true metaphor for the man who finds that he doesn't belong, whether it be Adams the actor or Yuma the character. It positions him as the ultimate outsider; not only has he betrayed his native North to fight for the South (ostensibly for a cause that was not his), it also means he continues as an outsider to this day, a member of the vanquished rebellion living as part of a conquered people. And for a show in which the main character lacks a permanent home, wandering from place to place and encountering new characters and situations in each episode (much like, say, The Fugitive), this is a perfect setup – the man who wanders, knowing all the while that no matter how long he remains in one place he will never truly "belong," he will never have a real home.
Beestguy refers to the “sense of misplaced southern martyrdom” present in The Rebel. One might be able to make this case more strongly had it been clearly established that slavery was an integral part of Yuma’s decision, but by his own admission the author can’t demonstrate that. We’re left, therefore, with the hypothesis that it was Yuma’s existential struggle, reflecting Adams’ own struggle in Hollywood, that becomes his motivation, with slavery either an afterthought or something that doesn’t even enter the equation. Preposterous? Perhaps, unless you don’t take the time to put everything in context, to realize the many dynamics in play at the start of the Civil War – dynamics that, as we’ve seen, extend to the very beginning of American history.
One of the problems we have today, a problem I’ve pointed out many times in this forum, is our determination to apply the morals and values of today to events from yesterday, without consideration of situational context - the hermeneutics of television, if you will. A case in point is Beestguy’s comment that “besides portraying the defeated South as somehow deserving of pity, the series whitewashes their role in fighting for slavery.” Here we see another example of painting with a broad brush. Not only is there no reason to attribute the same motives to all Southerners, to all who fought for the Confederacy, we can see that it’s historically inaccurate. Certainly there were cases where politicians and other public leaders used the issue of states’ rights as a cover for their support of slavery.* But remember who we’re talking about – politicians! Obfuscation is a prerequisite for the position. I think we can find just as many instances where the issue of states’ rights spoke honestly to the fears of Southerners – people like Patrick Henry, who knew that the usurpation by the federal government of the individual rights of a state was a slippery slope. Indeed, it’s an issue that we see constantly in today’s politics.
*I think you also have to create a distinction between slavery and racism. It depends on your definition of racism: whether you attribute it to a belief in a fundamental difference between the two races, whether you extend that to belief in a native superiority of whites over blacks, or if you have an innate fear – a phobia, we would call it today – of other races. The existence of humane slaveowners may or may not be a myth, but to the extent that we associate ownership of slaves with brutality, exploitation, and abuse, and then link this to the all-encompassing issue of “racism,” we cannot say that all slaveowners were racists, any more than we could assert that all racists are slaveowners. The existence of racists in the North, people who supported the Union against the Confederacy but opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, should alone be proof of that.
As his discussion of the series winds down, Beestguy concludes with what I truly consider a questionable statement. Referring to the episode “The Hope Chest,” he cites the “inexplicable” line Yuma utters in response to an old man’s offer of $200 if Yuma will marry his daughter. Declining the offer, Yuma remarks, "I just don't think anybody has the right to sell a human life." This line, says Beestguy, is “Spoken like a page from the Confederate apologist's playbook: the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Denial couldn't be painted in any starker terms.”
Perhaps I’m guilty of denial then, in full or in part. Once again, there is no evidence that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War. There is no evidence that Yuma was a slavery sympathizer. If anything, there is more evidence to suggest that Yuma had other, more personal, reasons for joining the Confederacy. If that’s the case, then why would he see any irony in what he says? Is there ever a moment in the series when Yuma asserts the justness of slavery, or supports the South’s right to own slaves? I don’t think so. We have to get away from the idea that when it comes to the Civil War, racism and slavery are all-consuming. Not only is that not the case, it becomes a somewhat self-centered way of thinking, the historical equivalent of the “it’s all about me” school of thought. History is a subtle mistress, and woe be to those who fail, willingly or unwillingly, to see her intricacies.
The fact that The Rebel doesn't deal with some of these questions - or, in fact, with any of them - doesn't mean the questions don't exist. It means that they are superfluous to the motivations of the characters, at least as they're projected on screen. It also means, in all likelihood, the network, the producers, or both, could have been well aware that the nation's viewers weren't ready to confront them within the framework of a half-hour drama. This isn't The Defenders, after all.* As a matter of fact, I think this is a point that probably deserves far more attention than I'm giving it, but in the end it comes back to context, whether that means when the series occurred, or when it was aired.
*In fact, even The Defenders wasn't The Defenders yet; it didn't come on the air until 1961, the year The Rebel went off.
Maybe I have come to understand this more clearly since I’ve moved to Texas. I’ve seen many of the values which I once associated with America either disappear or become a point of contentiousness. I’ve seen the federal government become more omnipresent in the lives of Americans, and at the same time more distant in terms of the average citizen’s ability to interact with it. Over the years, I’ve come to think as many Texans do, that I’m a Texan first, an American second. That doesn’t mean I’m not an American, but my state has pride of place. Does this mean I’d take up arms against the United States? In the abstract, I don’t think that’s a question that needs to be answered. But it does mean that your birthright, your family, your people – they all remain powerful motivators of human behavior, both now and then. To make such an association between slavery and the Civil War, to use it as a motivation of the character and the actor, to pick away at the contradictions with modern sensibilities rather than those of the time – well, it’s all a misreading at best, facile at worst.
I hope that you, dear readers, understand me well enough by now to appreciate that I am neither a racist nor a sympathizer of slavery. I trust that I don’t have to prove this to you, but I will mention again that, logically speaking, A does not yield B, except in arrogance. All living people are human beings, born of the same dignity, the same worth, with the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Period, end of statement. If slavery is America’s original sin, then the Civil War is her existential struggle for understanding, for what it means to be a collection of quasi-sovereign states existing within a central government. We should not be surprised that this struggle can come to light through a television series, for even though the examples can seem few and far between, there is enough evidence of it that we do television a disservice to think it capable of nothing other than a simplistic worldview. If we write about classic TV, we should give it more credit than that.