#5 – S6Ep1 – “Genesis”
HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL ran for six seasons between 1957 and 1963, racking up an impressive 225 episodes throughout its run. I’m opting here to focus on what I think of as the 5 best episodes of the series. As you’d expect, this is going to be a very subjective list. HGWT was a show of several colors, and the ones that appeal to me aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that might appeal to you. (For example, I find many of the Gene Roddenberry episodes to be too cloying for my tastes.)
For five seasons’ worth of episodes, series creator Sam Rolfe allowed very little to be revealed concerning the background of the mystery man who styled himself Paladin. Many an episode might drop a random clue–he went to West Point, he served in the Cavalry, he had traveled the world, he constantly crossed paths with people who knew him in the past. But very little was concretely known about the Man in Black. And that’s the way things would largely remain–but for the series opener of what would be the show’s final year, Rolfe chose to draw back the curtain on the circumstances that made Paladin the person he was. And so, “Genesis”, which first aired on September 15, 1962 and which gave Paladin an origin story the equal of any super hero or figure of myth.
It’s a tour-de-force episode for series star Richard Boone as well. After five years, it was no secret that Boone was growing tired of doing the same kinds of things again and again as Paladin. He was a classically-trained actor, and he chafed at the restrictions of the role, In these later years, he often kept his attention by directing the episodes. Boone was Paladin, and this episode gave him the rare opportunity to pull triple duty, performing not only as the Paladin of today, but also as the younger pre-Paladin as well as the villainous outlaw Smoke around whom most of the action revolves.
Perhaps because of this triple role, this particular episode was directed by William Conrad, who also played the sinister Norge. Composer Van Cleeve did an excellent job with the score on this one, weaving in and building the score of Paladin (as represented by Johnny Western’s “The Ballad of Paladin” over the closing credits) throughout the episode. James Mitchum, the son of Robert Mitchum, portrays the other central character in the drama, Roderick Jefferson.
The episode opens, as so many did, with a nattily-attired Paladin returning to his room at the Hotel Carlton late in the evening. A gunman is waiting for him inside his room, but Paladin gets a glimpse of him in a full-length mirror and is able to avoid the assassin’s shot. Thereafter, the younger would-be killer is no match for Paladin’s fists. Dragging him to a nearby chair, Paladin questions this man, whom he has never seen before, about why he was trying to kill him.
The man identifies himself as Roderick Jefferson, and his story strikes a chord with Paladin. Jefferson is a gambler, and tonight his luck ran cold to the tune of $10,000 in IOUs. Facing jail and disgrace, he was offered a way of paying off his debts: kill Paladin. “I’ve met you, Mister Jefferson. About ten years ago, one morning–in a mirror.“
As Paladin tells Jefferson his story, the camera fades back ten years, to another hotel room much like this one, where a high-stakes poker game is breaking up. But in this instance, the big loser is the man who will be Paladin–he’s gambled and lost to the tune of $15,000 that he does not have. At this time, Paladin was being paid a small monthly stipend to stay away from his home, over circumstances that were never disclosed. Norge, the cruel and bitter figure who holds Paladin’s notes, offers him a way out that will neither send him to prison nor cause his family embarrassment or disgrace: Norge is the rightful owner of Delta Valley, but he has been driven from the land by an outlaw known only as Smoke. Smoke is wanted in a dozen states of a dozen crimes, but the people of Delta Valley found him terribly wounded and nursed him back to health, and in return, Smoke drove Norge out, threatening to kill him should he ever return. The other men Norge has sent back into Delta Valley to deal with Smoke never returned, but Norge has done his homework, and he believes that Smoke will agree to a duel with the cultured, gentlemanly pre-Paladin, and that Paladin will be able to kill him. With no other options open to him, Paladin makes the bargain.
Paladin begins to make his way to Delta Valley, but before he can enter the valley proper, he’s struck unconscious from behind by a blow from a figure clad all in black, and whose holster carries the insignia of a chess knight of silver. Paladin awakens to find himself trapped in a ravine, facing a thousand-foot drop behind him, and the only way out in front of him defended by Smoke, the Man in Black. Paladin wants nothing more than to get this whole ugly business over with, but Smoke is curious about what sort of a man he’s dealing with. Smoke is also clearly suffering from consumption–he hasn’t all that long to live, based on his cough. He regards his would-be killer with grim insight: “In the books, there’s a name for a man like you. Yeah, a paladin. A paladin. That’s a gentleman knight in shiny armor, all armed with a cause and righteousness and a fine pointed lance. And yet a mercenary. A man who hires out for gold. What was your price, my paladin? How much gold did Norge give you to slay the dragon?“
Paladin demands his duel, but Smoke reserves the right to determine the time, place and weapons. He grills Paladin about the younger man’s skills, finds them lacking, and instructs him in how to modify his holster for a swifter draw and how he must practice if he’s to even have a chance against Smoke. This carries on for a number of days, as the trapped Paladin grows more proficient in the use of his weapon and the speed at which he can deploy it. But he still has no bullets for his gun.
What he does have is his animal cunning. Hearing Smoke continue to cough and choke during the nights, Paladin studies the air flow around the ravine and works out where he can build a stack of smoky brush such that it will belch smoke directly towards where his opponent will be positioned. His hope is to be able to take advantage of Smoke’s weak point, his decaying lungs, and escape with his life and his freedom.
The morning of the duel breaks and Smoke appears. He’s momentarily befouled by the smoky fumes, but is still able to wing Paladin with his shot. The younger man fires second, felling his opponent and sending him toppling into the ravine. As Smoke lays dying, he admonishes Paladin: “Well, now you think you’ve slain the dragon? You know what you’ve done? You’ve turned the dragon loose! The one decent thing I did in my life was to chain him away from these people. Who’s going to stop Norge now? You? Oh, your armor does shine brightly, and your arm is strong enough. But where is righteousness, noble paladin? Where is your cause? You remember: there’s always a dragon loose somewhere.”
Bringing Smoke’s body back to Delta Valley, Paladin is shunned by the townspeople there, for whom Smoke was a protector. “What kind of a man kills a man like this? What kind of a man kills out of selfishness, and for money? Smoke is dead, but our feelings for him will live forever, and so will our memory of the man who killed him.” As the funeral procession bears Smoke’s body away, turning their backs on him, Paladin breaks down and cries.
A day later, Norge is on his way to Delta Valley when a voice calls out to challenge him: it is Paladin, now attired in Smoke’s black colors and wearing the gunman’s knight-bejeweled holster. He has taken up the cause of his predecessor. Back in the present, Jefferson asks Paladin if Norge ever went back to Delta Valley. Paladin quietly replies, “Only once.” and it is literally everything we need to know about what went down in that fatal encounter.
Back in the present,
Paladin intends to visit the holder of Jefferson’s note, to do some negotiating on the younger man’s behalf, and to recoup the cost of his broken mirror, at the very least. Here, Rolfe distills the essence and ethos of the series down to a single statement from Paladin to Jefferson, one of my favorite quotes from the show: “If men have a common factor, it seems to me it’s their ability to err. If a man’s mistakes determine what he was, then what he does about those mistakes should determine what he is.”