Wagon Train, “The Gus Morgan Story”

Wagon Train, “The Gus Morgan Story”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Television is one of the rare inventions that consumers anticipated long before it materialized. While radio evolved almost on the sly from a medium designed for targeted communication to a medium for mass entertainment, the early efforts at perfecting television were well-publicized, such that potential buyers not only knew it was coming, they knew what they expected it to be. They expected something like radio with pictures, and they expected it to be in color. Instead, the transition to color came a few years after television’s wide acceptance into the market. Consumers didn’t want to spring for color sets until there was something to watch on them, and producers didn’t want to spring for programming in color until enough sets were in homes. So color shows trickled out slowly, often in syndication, where they drew large enough ratings that the businessmen couldn’t ignore them. My mother often describes how when her parents bought their first color TV set, they’d watch anything broadcast in color, including pro wrestling—setting the stage for an oft-told family legend in which my poised, ever-classy grandmother looked up from her knitting and shouted, “Snap his head off!”

The Western series Wagon Train debuted in 1957 and ran for six seasons in black and white before shifting to color in 1963, prompted in part by the success of Bonanza, which galloped to the front of the Western pack barely a year after it debuted in color in 1959. “The Gus Morgan Story” is the third episode of Wagon Train’s seventh season, and is in most ways a typical example of the series. The show’s lead characters roll their wagon train into a new territory, meet some people with problems, and do what they can to help before rolling out. But “The Gus Morgan Story” arrived at a time of change and uncertainty in show-business history—a time when even sweet society ladies were seduced by panting brutes in tights—and a lot of that tension plays out subtly on the screen.

It’s even evident in the episode’s choice of guest star: Peter Falk, who first made a name for himself in the New York theater scene in the mid-’50s, during the height of the Actors Studio era, then came out to Hollywood, where he quickly established himself as a potent character actor in movies and on television. By the time he appeared on Wagon Train, Falk had already been nominated for two Oscars and two Emmys—and had won one of those Emmys, for a guest shot on The Dick Powell Theater. Falk arrived a little too late for the heyday of live anthology television, when rumpled New York guys dominated the small screen. But he was a malleable enough type that he could fit in just about anywhere: in bloated slapstick comedies, in grubby B-movies, in dry dramas… whatever Hollywood was offering. Eventually, Falk became a popular TV detective in Columbo, at the same time he was appearing in the edgier independent psychodramas of his friend John Cassavetes. He could play to the masses, but like a lot of actors, directors, and musicians who emerged at the dawn of the ’60s, Falk saw himself as an artist as much as an entertainer.

In “The Gus Morgan Story,” Falk plays a railroad magnate who arrives in Kansas to supervise a tunnel-digging project after a cave-in kills a handful of employees under the supervision of his sensitive brother Ethan. Ethan is played by Tommy Sands, an actor-singer with an offbeat career of his own. Signed to RCA Records as a teenager by Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, Sands found fame on television when he played an Elvis-like character—and sang the hit song “Teen-Age Crush”—on a 1957 Kraft Television Theater episode, “The Singing Idol.” Sands married Nancy Sinatra in 1960 and divorced her in 1965, after which any heat remaining in his career quickly dissipated, reportedly due to the intervention of his former father-in-law. But it didn’t help that Sands was something of a pre-fab star in an auteur era.

Neither Falk nor Sands is much of a Western “type,” but Wagon Train uses them well, emphasizing the ways they don’t fit in. Ethan is a college boy from back East, while Gus is a hardened businessman who worked his way up from the bottom of the railroad business to become vice-president of the Kansas & Pacific. When Gus Morgan arrives, the camera looks him up and down, noting how duded-up he is. The first impression he leaves is that of a callous fat cat, more interested in property than people.

Along with wagonmaster Chris Hale (played by John McIntire), Ethan leads Gus into the foothills to try and convince him to reroute the new railroad line over the mountain rather than through it. The two brothers argue over whether it’s worth spending the extra money—including adding an extra locomotive to drive trains up the steep grade—just to save a few lives. Then, during the squabble, Ethan trips over a rock and accidentally discharges his rifle, hitting Chris.

Gus and Ethan fashion a stretcher for Chris and start to lead him laboriously down the mountain, but a storm blows in, their horses break away, and the sparse oxygen leaves Ethan exhausted. Gus lays into his brother, yelling:

You’re not in college now! It’s a lot tougher than lifting books! If I’d been smart, you would’ve been laying track on a gang when you were 16 years old. You would’ve lived or died by your muscles. And that’s what you’re gonna do now. You’re gonna get on your feet, you’re gonna keep moving. You’re gonna do that, or you’re gonna lay here and die.

But Ethan falters, and Gus has to make a choice between helping his brother down the mountain, or helping the wounded Chris. Gus chooses his brother, but can’t bear the guilt of hearing Chris’ pathetic cries. So Gus chokes Chris.

Gus and Ethan eventually find rescue and recuperate in the nearby town of Fort Hays. But what they don’t know is that Chris Hale survived the choking, survived the storm, survived the gunshot wound, and made his own way down the mountain to Fort Hays, where he’s hidden away from the Morgans by Hale’s chief scout, Duke Shannon (played by Denny Scott Miller, who played Tarzan in the ’50s and would go on to be the Gorton’s Fisherman). Duke arranges for everyone in town to keep Chris’ condition a secret, and asks them to conspire to keep Gus Morgan in Fort Hays until Chris heals. The stagecoach line won’t sell Gus a ticket. The saloon-keeper supplies him with all the whiskey he can drink. It’s like Gus is trapped in the Twilight Zone, or a Luis Buñuel film. Until, finally, Gus confronts Duke and learns the truth.

Then something unexpected happens. Though wracked with guilt, Gus Morgan makes a case for himself, saying he choked Chris out of mercy, knowing that he couldn’t take the old man down the mountain, but not wanting to leave him to die like an animal. And when Chris heals, his drive for vengeance weakens, and he comes around to Gus’ point of view. Gus, distraught, pulls an empty gun, hoping Chris will kill him, but instead, Chris shoots one of the men on his team who’s about to shoot Gus.

I mentioned Bonanza and Wagon Train as being part of a pack of TV Westerns in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and that’s no exaggeration. There’s a reason for that old ’50s visual cliché of kids sprawled out on the floor of their suburban dens, watching Westerns; in 1959, network television devoted 26 hours of prime-time a week to Westerns, with eight of those shows (including Wagon Train) routinely landing in the Top 10. Meanwhile, Hollywood continued to crank out Westerns too, from breezy action pluggers to dark “psychological” Westerns to the widescreen epics intended to lure people off their couches and back into theaters.

The Western has and continues to serve an odd function in American entertainment. In the early days of cinema, Westerns were popular with audiences and producers alike because they were uncomplicated. They could be shot cheaply on back lots and in nearby deserts, with just a few sets simple enough to evoke frontier living. And the plots were equally simple: pure-hearted cowpoke fends off dastardly cattle rustlers and whatnot. Over time, though, filmmakers began to take their cues from the growing body of literary Western fiction, with their more morally ambiguous heroes and historical detail. By the ’50s, Hollywood Westerns had become some of the film industry’s most reliably sophisticated products, dealing with the gray areas between good and evil, from the past to now.

Prior to HBO’s Deadwood, the gold standard for gritty realism and nuance in TV Westerns would’ve been the Sam Peckinpah-created The Westerner, which ran for 13 episodes in fall 1960. But Wagon Train often aspired to be just as smart and relevant—to the extent that Gene Roddenberry could pitch Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars” and not get laughed off the lot—and a lot of those aspirations are evident in “The Gus Morgan Story.” The episode aims for realism via little pieces of detail: ambivalence about the spread of the railroad, the planning it takes to get supplies and distribute them, the unreliability of weather and animals, and how difficult it is for a man just to up and leave town whenever he wants to. And the episode leans toward the raw at times. Chris’ journey down the mountain—conveyed in dialogue-free scenes of a man in excruciating pain—resembles the “Survival” episode of Combat, albeit less self-consciously artistic in presentation.

“The Gus Morgan Story” was written by Norman Jolley and directed by Virgil W. Vogel, two journeyman television hands who’d worked almost exclusively in the medium for over a decade before Wagon Train came along, and would continue to do so for decades to come. They construct the episode solidly, though unexceptionally, introducing a little comic relief here and there in the form of the team’s childlike, sycophantic driver Charlie (Frank McGrath), and building to a series of strained speeches about the true meanings of “weakness” and “strength.” And since the seventh season of Wagon Train expanded to fill a 90-minute timeslot, there’s plenty of boot-leather scenes in “The Gus Morgan Story” too, as characters walk from one place to another. (This episode is roughly the length of a Budd Boetticher film, but it’s nowhere near as taut.) Still, Vogel deploys some dramatic push-ins where needed, and Jolley raises troubling questions about how the West was won by men like Morgan, who prized expediency over compassion. These were the kinds of questions being raised by the burgeoning youth movement in the early ’60s, and “The Gus Morgan Story” tries to have it both ways by chastising the callous businessman while flattering his practicality.

How does it all play in color? Well, one advantage to using black and white for Westerns is that B&W already has an otherworldly quality, like a hazy vision from a dream of the distant past, so it doesn’t always matter if the sets look cheap and sparse. In color, though, the artificiality is often more exposed. “The Gus Morgan Story” uses color well when its characters are up in the mountains, clearly on an exterior location…

…or when they’re riding through a storm across ruddy mud.

But the color doesn’t do as well with a purportedly “warm” interior like a doctor’s office.

Interiors are what can set a Western apart, creating a sense of what civilized life might’ve been like in wild country. The books, the lamps—those details create a more livable space. Here, though, the details look like an afterthought. As does this saloon exterior…

…which looks garishly painted and fakey, more like a set than a place. Similarly, while the rainy streets of Fort Hays look suitably miserable, the snow on the mountain looks like Christmas-tree flocking, and Falk’s gray hair looks like a bad dye-job.

This is where Wagon Train—and pop culture in general—had landed in 1963. There was a push-and-pull going on between the various branches of the mass media. The advent of rock ’n’ roll at the end of the ’50s shook up popular music briefly, until Your Hit Parade appropriated the new sound and temporarily tamed it. Then Beatlemania broke and turned the music business on its ear again. Meanwhile, the New York-dominated live TV era and an influx of heady foreign fare first pushed Hollywood to make more mature films, though by the early ’60s Hollywood had shifted back to spectacle, pushing television to transition to color, and to figure out whether that should portend lighter programming or a doubling-down on realism.

So shows like Wagon Train grappled with questions they might not have considered a decade before. Like, how do we frame the past? How do we experience it in our minds? Is the Old West always to be cast in monochrome and tinged with sepia? Or do we want to see it in full color, through the eyes of the people who lived it? And if so, does it matter if that color inevitably fades with time, as happened with this episode of Wagon Train, thereby creating a new buffer between ourselves and our history?

I remember watching Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory in one of my college film classes, and a classmate asked the professor afterward why Kubrick shot in black and white, given that he was going for a more realistic, “war is hell” kind of feel. The professor replied that in 1957, there was nothing “realistic” about color film. From the makeup to the sets to the lighting to the film stock, everything was juiced or skewed to produce an effect. And so it was with the “realism” in TV dramas in the early ’60s. Producers, writers, directors, and actors strove to suggest the real world in all its complexity, but without breaking the bank or turning off the audience. Like the early experiments with making radio entertaining or delivering color television signals, there’s always been a lot of trial  and error involved with the balance between art and entertainment, and meeting consumer expectations. Everyone’s always searching for the right combination of filters and chemicals.


Next time on A Very Special Episode… M*A*S*H, “The Interview.”