Wild, Wildebeest West; or, When Wagon Train Jumped the Gnu

Sometimes it  takes just a split second to realize (or remember) that those peddling the western mythos in the middle of last century thought their audience–the common folk eating TV dinners on vinyl poufs–were idiots.

I know full well that our nostalgia for westerns and the monolithic western hero is only made possible by crafty screenwriting and well-rehearsed shootouts with blanks (and, one hopes, unionized labor for cast and crew). But I always believed that the mythmakers had at least some, well, respect for western fans. Especially those honchos behind TV’s classic Wagon Train, whose creaky scripts and stock footage of the same old crooked tree at the mountain pass yet again would’ve cancelled the show, but for  the wellspring of affection from the many Wagon Train groupies.

Speaking of groupie, let me just pause a moment for a Robert Horton moment!!!

shirtless_robert horton

I was settling in with a shot (ahem, or three) of whiskey, ready to soak up the bromance between Seth Adams and Flint McCollough–in the second season of Wagon Train they’re often spatting at each other, figuring out who was on top–when a buffalo was shot by one of the men on the wagon train, and my nostalgia was punctured like a proverbial balloon.

“Did you see that?” I asked my urban cowboy. He had not. I stepped the scene back a few frames and paused it.

“That’s a wildebeest,” he said. “Not a buffalo.”

And he was right. And the mystery that obsessed me, that snatched away my concentration from the strutting Flint and Seth, was the question of all questions: A wildebeest? Really?

“The Tent City Story” aired December 10, 1958. Seth Adams (Ward Bond), in his second season leading pioneers westward, had forbidden those on the train  to kill any game while crossing a warlike Native American tribe’s lands. Sure enough, one of them shoots a buffalo, sparking a confrontation that threatens to wipe out the wagon train, and, much more importantly, destroy the wonderful friendship of wagon master and scout, Flint McCollough.

Seth Adams shackles the man in irons, a harsh punishment that brings out the fire in Flint and causes the scout to leave the wagon train and fall into a job as lawman for a wild and woolly tent city. There’re pretty women (“Flint…that’s a nice name…”) and gunfire and a fight in the mud between a warrior chief White Eagle and Flint (whoo!). Slim Pickens has a short turn as a hapless man who’s also killed game on tribal lands, allowing Flint to show that he is less of a hardass than Seth Adams. All in all, it’s a fine episode that lets Ward Bond roar and Robert Horton grit his jaw and character actor Slim Pickens do a muted refinement of his schtick. Everything a fan can ask for!!!

But that wildebeest…dang, guys.

Scene opens, man gallops down trail. Smiles. (And sorry for the crappy screenshots–had to use Youtube…)

Wagon train man on horseback

Wagon Train Smile man on horseSees herd of bovids. (Least they had the family right.)

Wagon Train wildebeest

Shoots one. (Squeamish note: Animals were totally, utterly harmed in this stock footage from the wilds of Africa.)

Wagon Train shot wildebeest

A brief pause for a science lesson.

Connochaetes taurinus:

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Bison bison:

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City

I thought their wagons had taken a wrong turn to another continent at Idaho? Or White Eagle’s tribe had taken to caring for exotic animals from a zoo? But then the man walked up to the dead stuffed buffalo, a bovid of North America, and I knew.

Wagon train stuffed dead buffalo

Viewers are kind of idiots.

Even in 2013. Example 1: there are TV shows where car chases through NYC landmarks are geographically impossible. Who cares? it’s all about the chase in NYC/Toronto streets. Example 2: Recently my urban cowboy missed the point of a movie because he was arguing about why the protagonist had driven from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon to Tucson–I told him just think “Arizona” and get back to the movie.

So who’s the idiot–the audience that goes with the flow, suspending disbelief, or the viewer who knows too much for his or her own good?

But a wildebeest?! I draw the line.

Did viewers back then notice the switcheroo? Did scores of families watching this not blink an eye at the sleight of hand with these massive land mammals? Did they not know the difference?

But can you really blame the creatives who made the scene in 1958? Bison had been protected for years, so there was probably no footage of a buffalo being shot that could be found for the lightning-speed-need of the TV production world. (A wildebeest being killed, on the other hand, was obviously far easier to find.) I pulled at my whiskey and brooded. Then thought, “Brilliant.” Clearly another directorial gem that allowed this episode to live in my brain far longer than it deserved. I downed the shot. Poured another. Toasted the wild western wildebeest and wild, wild Wagon Train.

Flint McCollough (Robert Horton): He’s yelled at me for the last time. I’ve got a little pride too, you know.

Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath): Between the pride you’ve got, and the pride he’s got, you both lost a good friend. You were good friends, you know.




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