The tv comedy that blew up the Wild West myths
For much of the 20th century, the mythology of the Wild West was fertile territory for books, movies, and popular culture. The romantic view of lone white cowboys and settlers taming the West drove popular narratives for decades. Thanks to this myth we have The Lone Ranger, John Wayne movies, Gunsmoke (which ran for an amazing 20 seasons), Bonanza, The Rifleman, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, and many more examples. While the myth of the Wild West hasn't quite gone away, today's perspective is decidedly less romanticized.
In these stories, white men are always the heroes (and occasionally the villains too). People of color are mostly on the sidelines, except for Native Americans, who are often seen as savages or obstructions to be overcome. Women are either barmaids or schoolmarms, and don't figure into most plots except as romantic interests. No other story medium elevated the tough, gun-toting white man more than the Western, and that myth turned out to be tragically oversimplified and destructive. Native Americans were robbed of their identities, food sources, and lands in a systematic way by white settlers, and while progress in medicine, transportation, and commerce lifted the West to a higher standard of living for many, it did so at a terrible cost.
At the height of this boom in Wild West stories came a brazen tv comedy- F-Troop. The show debuted in 1965 and poked gentle fun at many of the sacred cows of the Wild West. The cavalry was full of incompetent buffoons. The Indians were also buffoons, but funny, humanized characters that the show laughed with and not at. Ken Berry played the hapless leader of F-Troop, and his bumbling humanity brought heart to a show about a heartless era. Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker provided much of the comedy with their greedy antics, but they were essentially lovable screw-ups like everybody else. As a child, I loved this show, but had no idea how radical it was for the time.
Considering the time period of F-Troop, the show holds up pretty well 56 years later. Sure, the Indian characters were mostly white people in wigs and makeup, but they were funny and real, unlike the nameless, faceless Indians of the typical John Wayne movie. Even Don Rickles donned makeup and costumes to play a crazed "Bald Eagle" character who learns to accept the white soldiers he once saw as enemies.
My favorite episode and the most powerful was one called "The New I.G." A new inspector general visits F-Troop from Washington, and his plans are evil and not too different from what actually happened. He crafts a treaty for the Hekawi Indians to sign that is so one-sided that he hopes they will reject it. Once rejected, he would use that as a pretense to go to war with the tribe and wipe them out. The men of F-Troop object because they see the Hekawi's and their chief, Wild Eagle, as friends. The I.G. eventually orders a raid on the Indian camp and orders the men to shoot to kill, finding out that the guns were replaced by novelty guns with cute messages that come out instead of bullets. (See the above photo) What could have been a horrible massacre turns into a funny joke, and I wish all of life could pivot that way just as easily.
F-Troop only lasted two seasons, but it gained a second life in reruns as baby boomer children watched their antics after school in the 1970's. Now the show has drifted off to obscurity which is a shame, though both seasons on DVD are still available. Here are some random F-Troop facts to entice you.
1- There were 32 episodes in each of the two seasons, much higher than the 16-24 episodes that studios typically produce per season today.
2- The first season is entirely in black and white, while the second season is in color. 1966 was the turning point for a lot of television as more families got color tvs, and the transition was fascinating to watch if you lived back then.
3- The actress who played the only female lead, Wrangler Jane, was only 16 years old when the show began. Melody Patterson withheld her age from the producers until she was cast, and she did a great job in a tough role.
4- The actor who played Wild Eagle, Frank De Kova was not Native American. In reality he was of Italian ancestry and had been in few comic roles before this one.
5- Ken Berry, aka Captain Parmenter, had a full tv career after the show ended, showing up on Mama's Family, Mayberry RFD, and many other shows of the 80's and 90's. Though he's famous as a bumbler, Berry actually got his start as a song and dance man.
6- The Indian tribe was almost named the Fugawi's, but censors made them change it to Hekawi. The joke was the tribe got lost and asked, "Where the heck are we?"
7- As of 2021, Larry Storch, aka Agarn, was the only cast member still alive, at age 98.
F-Troop reminds me a bit of the later tv comedy, MASH. Both take irreverent looks at the military and joke about things that shouldn't be sources of comedy. The Wild West myth has changed some, but there are still many who romanticize how it must have been to be taming the wilderness (while exterminating an entire race of people at the same time). F-Troop was followed in 1970 by an amazing movie with Dustin Hoffman called "Little Big Man." That movie did to Hollywood what F-Troop did to television. Indians were humans all along, and white men weren't always right.
No one alive today remembers the 19th century and the days of Jesse James or Geronimo. We are stuck with stories- some true and many exaggerated- about how the West was won. The more accurately we can come to terms with how the American frontier was handled, the better we can set a path forward that's more like we want to be. Once we can laugh at the absurdities of our past, and laugh at ourselves, we are freed to become better people.