Given recent uproars about Confederate flags representing modern-day racism, The Rebel: Season One, new from Shout! Factory Tuesday at Warlmart, is timely. (A Complete Series set also is available online.)
Is it racist? Does it emblazon the screen with Confederate images?
No and no. Instead, this stark and stout Western drama, whose two seasons aired on ABC from 1959-61, has a lone wandering hero, Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams, who also co-created), possessing a strong moral compass — and it doesn’t just point South.
For all the treacherous varmints Johnny meets while roaming the West in 1867, the former soldier’s saga has humanism and compassion at its heart, as he helps the innocent and defies the prairie scum. Though he still wears a Rebel cap, Johnny rarely mentions the war (he served from Texas, on the Confederacy’s fringe), which seems to have both scarred and spurred him to seek meaning in a troubled world, as he conveys in journals he keeps as an aspiring, soul-searching writer.
“There’s different kinds of wars,” Johnny says. “There’s wars that go on inside.”
He also wields a mean double-barreled sawed-off shotgun given to him in the first episode. Groovy.
Season One offers 36 half-hour episodes in black and white, with no extras. But the series is reward enough in itself. The Rebel would add a whopping 40 episodes in Season Two, and its total of 76 is easily three seasons’ worth of material by today’s standards — and remarkable early-era TV.
Directing almost half of those episodes was Irvin Kershner, who later directed a little film called The Empire Strikes Back, as well as RoboCop 2, when I had the privilege of interviewing him on location in downtown Houston.
Notable guest stars also abound. The first half-dozen episodes bring Dan Blocker (just before he saddled up for Bonanza), John Carradine, Ed Nelson, George Macready, J. Pat O’Malley and Ben Wright, later the mustachioed Nazi in The Sound of Music. Others to appear include Leonard Nimoy, Robert Vaughn and Robert Duvall.
The Rebel also had a potent theme song, laced with faint, haunting echoes of Dixie and sung by Johnny Cash.
Our hero predated James Bond’s style by regularly giving his name as “Yuma, Johnny Yuma.” But while he was tough enough, he didn’t look for fights but faced them when confronted, much like the hero of another strong Western drama of the time, The Rifleman’s Lucas McCain.
As noted in onscreen graphics at the start of discs, The Rebel’s source material here was 16mm prints, and it shows. But sound and picture are reasonably good, and the original episodes were handsomely shot while produced at Paramount.
Star Adams was a troubled young man himself. A good friend of actor James Dean, he conveyed that angst onscreen, and in 1968 he died from a prescription drug overdose at age 36.
As Johnny said, some wars go on inside.
— Bruce Westbrook