March 16, 2016

When Western heroes don't shoot straight

I was watching an episode of Bat Masterson the other night, it being one of the bedtime half-hour dramas we watch during the week. Masterson, played by Gene Barry as a slightly younger version of Amos Burke, occupies an unusual place in the television Western; it's not exactly one of the kids' shows that were prevalent in the early days of TV - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and the like - and yet it's not quite one of the "adult" Westerns of the late '50s onward - shows like Wyatt Earp, Bonanza, Gunsmoke et al. Masterson, unlike the earlier cowboys, didn't have comic relief, and had a fine eye for the trim ankle, but the show stays clear of the psychological morality play that typifies the later series. And it's this fish/fowl dichotomy that sets up today's question. A trite one, perhaps, but I'm going to indulge it anyway.

It's a typical Masterson episode in that it involves gambling, beautiful women, ornery-looking criminals, and Bat himself. As we look in on the scene, we see Bat raking in the dollars from a successful card game, which he takes to deposit in the town's bank. Unbeknownst to Masterson, however, two shady characters see him leaving the saloon with his hatfull of money and heading for the bank, and as soon as he's left, they enter the bank, hold up the banker and his assistant, and abscond with the cash, but not before fatally shooting the two employees.

Bat's given a chance to recoup his losses when an old-timer offers to stake him in another card game in return for Masterson agreeing to help deliver a valuable cargo for him. Bat agrees to the deal, whereupon he wins big again, this time (although he doesn't realize it) defeating one of the bank robbers, the hot-headed one, from whom he wins back all of his previously stolen money. The hot-head wants to fill Masterson full of head right then and there, but his partner, a much more level-headed criminal, prevents him from taking such action, telling him that he overheard the conversation between Masterson and the old-timer, and if they simply rob the wagon Masterson has been hired to help deliver, they'll be able to get not only the money but the valuable cargo as well. What they don't know, though, is that the cargo turns out to be not lucre, but instead three beautiful women, mail-order brides who are on the way to meet their prospector-husbands. With me so far?

The robbers, accompanied by two Indian mercenaries, ambush the wagon, shooting and killing the old-timer. Bat returns the fire, killing the two Indian braves, bringing the cumulative death toll to five. The robbers attempt to kidnap one of the brides and hold her for ransom, but when the hot-head attempts to have his way with her, the level-head objects. The two men fight, and the level-headed man is killed. By my count, that makes six dead so far. Bat confronts the hot-head, who asks Bat, "You aimin' to take me in?" He draws on Bat, but Bat is quicker, and from about five feet out, he shoots him. In the arm, disarming him. He does in fact take him in, while also delivering the brides, and everyone (except the six dead men and the survivor) lives happily ever after.

Now my questions start, the most important of which is this: Why did Bat take the risk of disarming the robber instead of simply killing him? G. Gordon Liddy once said you never take out your gun unless you intend to use it, and the purpose of using the gun should only be to eliminate the threat. Any law enforcement official will tell you that shooting to disarm is one of the most dangerous things anyone can do. It's a high-risk shot in the best of times, and the odds of success are low enough that you leave yourself wide open. In other words, you're not giving yourself the best odds of eliminating the threat.

I could understand Bat shooting to disarm if he was Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy, but he isn't, and besides, six people had already been killed. It's not that Bat would have been killing an innocent man; the outlaw draws first. It's not that Bat's a bad shot - we've seen evidence that he's an excellent one, and from that short distance there's no way he could have missed, so he deliberately shot to disarm. It's not that Bat has some code that he doesn't kill; it's true that he often whacks the bad guys with his cane (hence the nickname "Bat"), but remember he's already killed two men in this episode.* I could even understand if the object was to show justice being meted out by the courts, but the last we see is Bat, the brides and the bad guy heading off into the sunset. The actor playing the outlaw doesn't even have any lines after he's shot - he just sits there on a horse, all tied up.

*Unless, and I hesitate to mention this, but the two men he killed were Indians. Are we to think they didn't count, that killing an Indian warrior wasn't quite the same thing as killing a white man? Considering the stereotypes of the era, I'm not putting that above the realm of suspicion.

Worst of all is the opportunity that was missed. To fully appreciate it, imagine that Bat Masterson is being played not by Gene Barry, but Clint Eastwood. The bad guy, looking as menacing as all get-out, has one hand on his gun and the other arm wrapped around the woman. It almost writes itself.

Bad Guy: "You aimin' to bring me in, Masterson?"
Bat: "Nope. Just aimin'."

Whereupon Masterson puts a slug right through the bad guy's chest. He flings himself backwards, eyes flying, in a death scene any cowboy can appreciate. The End. It's not only more satisfying, it's probably a lot more realistic.

Westerns both adult and kids versions, were always considered violent. Even if people aren't being shot and killed, plenty of them are having the snot beaten out of them. If this show had been made in, let's say, August of 1968 there would have been a motive to avoid needless violence, and therefore the criminal was merely disarmed. If you were making this show for kids, you would want Bat to apprehend him without firing a shot. But this episode was made in 1960, and it wasn't made for kids.

Lacking anything to the contrary, therefore, I can only conclude that there's one word to describe the ending of this episode of Bat Masterson, and that word is "stupid." Anyone care to take the other side?

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!