“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 their own ways were 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.
“The cattleman who came first and carved this vast range land out of the wilderness saw himself facing destruction as the homesteaders settled on his range. Fencing him off from the grass and the water, the homesteaders had many names in the West: squatter, nester, and sometimes, with truth, rustler. The cattlemen struck back hard.”
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. The closest might be Molly (Scott) who owned the local Medicine Bow newspaper. She was gone before the season ended.
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.
There were an impressive number of guest stars in this first year. George C. Scott stars as a cowardly teacher who is almost unrecognizable as such a timid character. Ricardo Montalban stars as a wealthy Columbian land owner. Eddie Albert is a rancher with a heavy chip on his shoulder. DeForest Kelley and James Doohan have an episode each. Even Hogan’s Heroes’ John Banner stars as a character named, what else, Schultz. There’s plenty more guest stars and action to make this a must have for genre fans.
About halfway through the season Rou Huggins took over the executive poduction duties. The show changed a little. The episode titles began to show up on screen. You might remember that Huggins created such timeless characters as Jim Rockford and Bret Maverick (both played by James Garner).
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. The real problem is the amount of grain present throughout. The problem is likely the original film stock and can in no way be considered a flaw with the transfer. Black levels fluctuate quite a bit but are usually fair. There are some serious compression artifact issues. On the episode The Man Who Couldn’t Die, compression is some of the worst I’ve seen. Two episodes per disc would have been better. Color is usually quite good. There are some nice bright colorful details.
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.
Interviews With Cast Members
All 30 episodes come in 10 discs with three episodes per disc. I’m partially unhappy with the packaging here. There is a colorful and quite attractive tin. But inside is a cardboard booklet with the discs nestled in very tight sleeves. There is just no way to remove a disc without putting a lot of finger pressure on the disc playing surface. The cardboard will also lead to scratches, for sure, if you let them stay that way. I found that sleeves could be placed inside the slots, but it puts a lot of pressure on the book binding. I figure better the book binding than the discs. With these issues overcome, there’s no reason not to take a close look at this classic western drama. I hope that Timeless Media continues the set and allows us to report on future releases. Until then, let’s just say, “Welcome to Shiloh Ranch”.