In a well-written but cynical article about about “Have Gun–Will Travel,” novelist Alan Vanneman writes:
It’s a well-known fact that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Rarely was the code masculine defined with so broad a brush yet so severe a regard for honor’s finest punctilio than in the U.S. during the 1950s. The culprit, if one is needed, was a shy kid from Oak Park, Illinois named Ernest Hemingway who somehow convinced himself that a man wasn’t a man unless he combined the unlikely and unstable virtues of Geronimo, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, and Gustave Flaubert.
Naturally, poor Ernesto ended his days by blowing his brains out, but the real damage was done long before. Ernie’s beard, his boozing, his wives, his wenches, his boxing matches, his lion hunts, and his endless braggadocio became the stuff that dreams are made of for generations of aspiring American writers, most especially the kids who came out of World War II anxious to trade in their M-1’s for a typewriter and a shot at the big time.
A classic instance of machismo a la Ernest is the fifties “adult western” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” now making its appearance on DVD. Have Gun, Will Travel starred the very existentialist Richard Boone as “Paladin” — “a knight without armor in a savage land,” as the show’s theme song had it.
Oh yes, “naturally”! What else is any man of ability, intelligence, courage and self-confidence to do but descend into braggadocio, alcoholism and suicide! Perhaps there are a few salient details omitted in this recap of Hemingway’s character and life?
Are we really supposed to believe that a man like Paladin, the hero of the late 50s, early 60s western “Have Gun–Will Travel,” must end by blowing his brains out like Ernest Hemingway? That strength, courage, integrity and skill are intrinsically self-defeating, especially when attended by a zest for the finer things in life?
For all its strengths, I think “Have Gun Will Travel” could be better done on many counts. If only every worthy show had infinite resources at its disposal.
But I can’t muster Alan Vanneman’s above-it-all ironic contempt for a hero and a show that he seems to like despite his impulse to cordon himself off from any complicity with its dramatization of moral and manly ideals. Vanneman seems to assume that the fact that fictional myth-making cannot be taken literally means that the moral ideals it expresses cannot be be achieved in reality in any practical form, no matter how responsive to and reflective of the values and virtues that do make our lives possible and worth living. Would it be better if men and women did not seek to be well-read, responsible and honorable—if we all stopped sipping wine and stopped trying to learn new skills and stopped partaking of our cultural inheritance—if we always ran like the wind from any great challenge?