Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on March 9th, 2011
“This is Fairfax County in the state of Virginia. I was born here. It’s peaceful, beautiful, and a long long way from Wyoming; beautiful, too, in its special way. Vast, proud and lonely; it’s my country now, Wyoming. But not exactly a peaceful one.”
Of course, if it were all that peaceful it wouldn’t have made for very compelling television. But The Virginian did make for compelling western drama in a television landscape that was as populated as prairies in those plains with western dramas. This was the golden era of the television western. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, and Wagon Train were anchoring every one of the three television networks. They each had their own angle. They each had their own particular way of telling a story. Each in its own way was groundbreaking. The Virginian was no exception.
The Virginian set itself apart from the others in two ways. The first was found in the source material. The series was based on a 1902 novel by Owen Wister, a man who actually lived in the Wyoming badlands during the time the series was set. The source material helps to add a sense of authenticity that might well have been a slight step ahead of the rest. It wasn’t as violent as the others, again reflecting a more realistic sense of direction.
Thus was the heart of the original novel. The stories were less about gunfights and more about the obstacles and challenges that these earlier settlers faced. Each, with different interests, tried to carve out a home in the vast wilderness of the open West. These challenges came from many places, and often from his fellow man, but not always. That’s the type of tale captured in this long-running western series.
The second unique aspect of this series was its length. This was one of the few 90-minute series in television history. Each episode was really a western movie that starred many of the same characters. True to the example set by the original novel, the series often developed western stories that were not originally written as episodes, but rather classic western novels, converted to fit the show.
The series was named after the main character in the series. The Virginian (Drury) had no other name. He was the foreman on the extensive Shiloh Ranch. The ranch took up fully half of the Wyoming territory. It was owned during the first seasons by retired Judge Garth (Cobb), who lived with his 15-year-old adopted daughter Betsy (Shore). The Virginian had two close friends who he spent almost all of his time running around with. Although he was their boss, they were inseparable buddies, to be sure. Trampas (McClure) was the older and more reckless of the two. Steve Hill (Clarke) was the young whippersnapper who was learning the cattle business the hard way. There were really no other regulars during this first year.
Another way this show was different was the ease with which the supporting characters got themselves episodes where they were the focus. There are even episodes where The Virginian himself was either not in the episode or relegated to a cameo, often at the beginning or end. This second season demonstrated this aspect even more. Of course, the reason had to do with the shooting schedule. In order to produce so much television, more than one episode was generally shooting at a time. There are another 30 episodes on 10 discs. Highlights of the season include some classic episodes:
In the first episode we find ourselves being told by The Virginian the story of how Trampas first came to Shiloh. We meet his father and discover some fascinating dynamics he shares with Judge Garth. It’s one of the show’s best stories. In The Evil That Men Do, a very young Robert Redford stars as a convict who wins over the sympathy of The Virginian after he stops the man’s escape attempt. The Judge pushes for a new parole system at the territory jail and gives the young convict a job at Shiloh. It takes a while, but the man learns a thing or two about socialization. Betsy also learns a thing or two when she develops a crush on the man. Run Quiet stars Clu Gulager, who would become a regular in season three with a totally different character. Here he gives one of the most powerful performances of his career as a deaf mute who is taught to trust again by The Virginian and the folks at Shiloh. He doesn’t get to say a word, but it’s an emotional portrayal that alone is worth the price of the set. Man Of Violence gives Star Trek fans an interesting image. Deforest Kelly stars as a military doctor with a love for the bourbon. Sound familiar? But don’t stop there. His patient is none other than Leonard Nimoy. Of course, we’re used to seeing this particular doctor/patient relationship. The story is quite a good one as the doctor joins a small group of men sneaking into dangerous Indian territory to bring back a killer. The Drifter has The Virginian tell us another story in flashback. This time we learn how The Virginian himself came to Shiloh and found himself in the middle of a blood feud between Judge Garth and another rancher. Fans of the show won’t want to miss these wonderful peaks at the character’s beginnings. First To Thine Own Self introduces the character of Randy. Like all newcomers to Shiloh, Randy arrives under a cloud of trouble and suspicion. He protects a little girl who saw her father get killed. Randy’s the only one she trusts, but everyone else thinks Randy is the killer, including the men from Shiloh. Randy becomes a recurring character and a regular starting with season two. He was brought in to appeal to the younger generation. He often was found picking out a country tune on his guitar. We get a genuine Western old dark house mystery movie in The Secret Of Brynmar House. It’s also a very rare episode that features just Betsy and Randy from the stable of characters. Betsy is invited to the home of an old family friend on the anniversary of a tragic night. It’s murder and mystery with all of the trimmings. There’s secret passages and plenty of thunder and lightning.
There were an impressive number of guest stars in this second year in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. They include: John Hoyt, Gena Rowlands, Broderick Crawford, Ryan O’Neal, Dick York, Warren Oates, Robert Lansing, Yvonne (Lily Munster) De Carlo, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, Mariette Hartley, Bruce Dern, Peter Graves, John Agar, Mark (Major Don Smith) Goddard, Victor French, Jane (Spock’s Mommy) Wyatt, Edward (sorry about that, Chief) Platt and Brenda Scott.
Each episode of The Virginian is presented in its original broadcast full-frame format. The series was shot in color. The detail is actually pretty nice, and the prints are pretty solid, allowing for age. Black levels fluctuate quite a bit but are usually fair. I still don’t like the idea of the amount of time on the disc, but I will say the compression issues are not nearly what they were in the first season. Color is usually quite good. There are some nice bright colorful details. Reds look particularly good and rich with this image presentation. From dresses to woodgrains, the color pops.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is as about what you’d expect from a 50-year-old source. There is distortion at times. The volume changes occasionally. I’m not sure what’s up with that. The dialog is fine, and hiss is kept to a minimum. The Percy Faith theme still has that rousing dynamic that it must have had back in the 1960′s.
In the first season I had a ton of complaints about the packaging. The cardboard sleeves were horrible. Timeless Media was listening. They went from some of the worst packaging to some of the best. You still get a very cool full-color tin. Now you get a plastic case where all ten discs sit quite safely. They didn’t even resort to overlapped discs. Now that’s listening to the fans.
The Full Color 3D Tin is quite a nice looking package for your media shelf.
Interviews With Cast Members James Drury and Clu Gulager (repeated from the first set)
The format changed slightly in season two. Drury’s narratives are no longer a part of the show. I missed them, but not enough to take away the enjoyment the season brought. Gary Clarke would leave the series after this season. He would actually go on to write scripts for such shows as Get Smart under a pen name. He would return three times in the third season before disappearing without any explanation about the character. With each episode of The Virginian, you might not know which characters you’re going to see. But, one thing you can always count on: “It’s a good story”.