Rawhide (occasionally popping up on cable on the likes of TMC) dates back to the end of the 1950s and into the early 60s, when things were so much simpler. The top ten TV shows were routinely packed out with Westerns such as The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke and American audiences just couldn’t get enough of them.
Happily for the TV networks, they were also cheap and easy to produce – all you had to do was get your actors, kit them out with costumes and props left over from the Western movies being churned out, and then decamp to the Californian desert and brush land for some good old-fashioned running around, shooting and punch-ups.
A plot would be useful, but really these sort of ‘oaters’ wrote themselves. In this episode, series star Eric Fleming playing Gil Favor has to step in escorting a wagon full of convicts to the nearest Fort after the marshalls are incapacitated (the Tumbleweed of the title is the prison wagon); his sidekick Rowdy Yates helps out. Rowdy is of course played by Clint Eastwood, but here he’s just a young kid with a big dumb-ass grin whose brains turn to jelly as soon as a beautiful woman shows up (in this case, the improbably-named female convict Dallas Storm.) Gil and Rowdy’s sense of proper security procedure is laughable (they leave locks undone, guns lying around where the convicts could get them) and they’re all together pretty poor at the stand-in job.
Surprisingly the pace is rather slow for a Western (although there’s a good couple of shoot-outs and punch-ups, never fear) and that allows the large supporting cast to make a proper impression and establish proper characters. It would be stretching it to say that the characters ever do anything genuinely surprising or are really changed or redeemed (save for the aforementioned Dallas), but they certainly emerge as more fleshed out and rounded characters than the usual “good guy/bad guy” cardboard cutout you’d expect of the era or the genre; predictably the one truly nasty character is an Englishman, played by 40s movie star Tom Conway who was George Sanders’ brother and took over from him in the role of The Falcon in a B-movie series of that name. In fact the only characters who don’t have any time spent on them are Gil and Rowdy themselves, but then they had another 22 episodes that season to get the job done.
The black-and-white film stock of this early episode of the series gives it a classy look and even stops the California backdrops from looking tired and familiar as they would become from TV show after TV show (mostly cop shows by then) in the 70s, and give a genuine sense of history to the whole affair.
It’s definitely a slice of history, and whether you’ll either roll your eyes with every cliché and the slow pace of the affair, or revel in its comfy, familiar embrace is very much up to the individual viewer. Personally I found it quite delightful – at least for a change.