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Classic episodes of classic TV westerns

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SEASON 7, EPISODE 26: "The Ben Engel Story"

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"Let's make a Diel"

This episode is obviously an allegory for Vietnam and how people were dodging the draft in 1964. We learn that John Doucette's character, Ben Engel, was able to buy his way out of serving in the Civil War, by pinning his duty on young Harry Diel (Clu Gulager). It was seen as the "right" thing to do, since it spared Diel from prison. Also it gave his wife (Katherine Crawford) a roof over her head with Engel while she was pregnant and Diel was off at war.

Dialogue in a key scene refers to the kinds of killing that are acceptable. Early on we have Coop (Robert Fuller) talk about men who kill because to destroy someone else gives them a sense of purpose and validates their own life. To which Chris Hale (John McIntire) replies that the services of such men are needed in times of war.

I couldn't help but think of Audie Murphy and other heroes known for massive killings in battle, who come home and are decorated with countless medals. In fact Harry Diel does just that-- he survives a wilderness battle and returns from his time in the army a respected and much-honored soldier. He's even given a medal from the president.

But as the story continues it is shown over and over just how much of a devil Harry Diel is. He seems to want everything that Ben Engel owns. In fact at one point Chris Hale realizes Diel means Devil in some European language. So when Engel (which means Angel) kills Diel at the end, it is presented as a form of justifiable homicide. Not sure if I buy into that. Does this mean upstanding members of society should go out and kill others they consider devils or demons? And it's okay?

The story is certainly heavy handed. Gulager's acting is very much in the vein of moustache-twirling villains. Every time we see Engel talking with Chris Hale, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of Diel, where Gulager gets a dramatic aside to remind us he's playing a bad character, with the actor smirking. Interestingly, at the top of the episode there's a line where Chris Hale tells Coop to smile when they encounter flooding and mud, so the train won't know what's really wrong.

In addition to the obvious villainy with Gulager, the story relies on extensive flashbacks covering the early part of Diel's relationship with Engel. This entire recollection of events plays out one night while others are dancing back in the main area of the camp. It ends with Diel getting his violent comeuppance, after we've seen how he had "valiantly" served his purpose in war. Wonder if his wife and young son kept his medal.

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SEASON 7, EPISODE 16: "The Michael Malone Story"

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"A spiritual journey"

In order to discuss this episode I'll have to spoil a major plot point up front. The guest character, played by Michael Parks, is a priest. This is not revealed until the second half of the story, and because it's supposed to be a surprise for viewers, the episode's title is not 'The Father Michael Malone Story.' In the beginning we're just supposed to know he is a man haunted by something that happened to him, and every time he hears church bells ring, he acts a bit mad.

He is hired to drive a wagon for an elderly woman (Nellie Burt) and her granddaughter (Joyce Bulifant). Gradually as he interacts with them and the members of Chris Hale's train, we learn he left the priesthood after the death of a young woman. The woman was his sister and she died in childbirth. Due to Father Malone's Catholicism and strict beliefs opposing abortion, he advised his sister to have the baby despite the fact it would be a complicated delivery and could lead to her own death. And unfortunately, it did.

So he's blaming himself and trying to figure out how he can be forgiven what's happened. It's pretty heavy handed stuff the writers are dishing up. The speeches made by Father Malone and some of the other characters are definitely meant to support the idea that abortion is wrong. Not sure what was going on in 1964 in order to legalize abortion in America, but though it was still nine years before Roe v. Wade, I'm sure strides were being made in this area. Conservative TV writers wanted to warn against the evils of that.

The writers also wanted to warn against the evils of falling in love with a priest. The old woman's granddaughter falls for handsome Father Malone during the first part of the trip, before anyone knows what his real calling is. Of course, he thinks Julie Holland is sweet and he's very fond of her. But this is a potential romance doomed before it even gets off the ground. She has to be content at the end in letting him go back to the church. We are shown he is very much a flawed man, but he is still godly. And she cannot succeed in turning him away from his vocation, or in preventing him from writing the next sermon condemning women who put their own lives ahead of the unborn.

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