Ethics And “The Rifleman”

If you want to ground your child in basic values and ethics, buying the new DVDs (available next month) with all 168 half-hour episodes of “The Rifleman,” the classic Western TV series, is a good way to start. I’ve been watching episodes recently (they are currently showing on both AMC and Starz), and am struck by how virtually every one has a strong ethics lesson to teach, and teaches it well without interfering with the drama. Most of the TV westerns from the genre’s Golden Age (which had already ended before the demise of “Bonanza,” the last of the great ones) had strong ethical values embedded in their plots, but few made ethics as thematic as the show starring Chuck Connors as a single father, living on the prairie in the 1880s, who used his Winchester rifle the way other cowboys used a pistol, but faster and with more accuracy.  Because Lucas McCain was trying to survive while teaching his young son (played by original Mousekateer Johnny Crawford) how to be a good man and citizen, he was always striving to be a role model while solving the difficult and often dangerous problems that came his way. Unlike many Western heroes, McCain didn’t always get it right, sometimes letting his emotions get the better of him or being unfair or impetuous, and had to undergo an ethical course correction by the end of an episode.

A repeated theme in the show was redemption and trust, as McCain often became the champion of a fallen woman or reformed criminal, or had to rely on an ally with a less than sterling past.  Villains in “The Rifleman” sometimes saw the error of their ways at the last second, committing a noble act before dying or going to jail. And sometimes they didn’t, and got shot with the Winchester. I’m sure that “The Rifleman,” with its gun-happy opening sequence (it presents the rifle as the star of the show as much as Connors) will seem like an unlikely source of ethics to the gun-queasy parents out there, and that is a shame. There is much to learn from “The Rifleman.”

You can watch some episodes of the show herehere and here. The catchy theme music is here; I was surprised to discover that it had lyrics, which by the standards of the generally terrible lyrics of westerns that had songs that were actually sung on a show, aren’t too bad. The best of its endless verses:

THERE IS A MORAL TO HIS EXPLOITS                         








Sources: Wikipedia, The Rifleman, Chuck Connors,

37 thoughts on “Ethics And “The Rifleman”

  1. Isn’t using a rifle in a “classic” gun fight cheating, though? I mean, isn’t it easier to pivot the rifle 90 degrees than it is to draw a piston?

    Isn’t the very foundation of the show then an unethical one?

    • I don’t know if Lucas was ever in a classic gun fight in the show. You have to use two hands to shoot a rifle–is that a disadvantage? Chuck Connors was huge—a much bigger target than whoever he would have been shooting at. Unfair?

      McCain was a farmer and part-time law man, not a gunfighter. He only shot in self-defense—are you ethically required to return a shot intended to kill you with the same firepower? I don’t think so. The usual plot of the show was to have Lucas outnumbered. Surely a superior weapon is fair then?

      • Chuck was the bad guy in the 1958 film “The Big Country with Gregory Peck. I still remember this scene. I was, ummm, lemme do the math… 12 when I saw this with my parents on the big screen in downtown Philadelphia.

  2. The guy (I assume it was a guy but I could be wrong!) that wrote the lyrics of the song must have been thinking of Teddy Roosevelt and his “Big Stick” diplomacy. I always liked Richard Boone in “Paladin” myself. Paladin often came up with an insightful aside about General Marcellus and the siege of Syracuse or something similar, employing this insight to his advantage. Very cool and philosophical.

  3. “Have Gun, Will Travel” (Paladin) was one of my faves too. But my favorite of all time is still “Wanted, Dead or Alive.” I immediately, as a young kid, recognized Steve McQueen’s incredible coolness. I own the whole series. This one has a young Mary Tyler Moore. Take note of McQueen’s acting in the first scene in the hotel room. This is the kind of thing he did for much of his career. He just naturally knew how to dominate a scene. Great example is how he overshadowed top billed actor Yul Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven.” And yes, Josh Randall displayed a number of good moral qualities. Hell, most of the time it seemed he gave away his bounty money to some poor widow.

    • Steve, of course, was too good for TV. He also had trademark weapon of choice, a sawed off shotgun. His character was as ethical as one can be in a job where you are essentially a hit man for the law—bounty hunting, a la Boba Fett, is not a nice profession.

      • Nowadays the term “bounty hunter” is used for bail enforcers, but has anyone in real life ever made a regular living going over the wanted posters and deciding which ones to pursue?

  4. Don’t know if you are aware of this or not, but there was (and presumably, still is) a rumor floating around during the run of the show that Chuck Connors was gay. I assume that the rumor was spread in an effort to denigrate or at least dilute the shows message. Being married several times and having a couple of kids, while not proof positive, is a strong indicator that he was NOT gay.

    • Fascinating. If Chuck had been gay, he could take credit for being the earliest outed major league baseball player, as he had played for the Dodgers. Never heard that rumor, and Chuck’s history is a topic of note in my wife’s family, where there is a strain that believes my mother in law was his lost and adopted sister. Lucas McCain was created by man’s man Sam Peckinpaugh, so having a certifiable gay actor play the part would have been rich. Otherwise, who cares.

      Despite his single status and the presumption that this should have been a Western version of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” Cain’s flirtations and courtships were far and few between, unlike, say, the Mavericks, Hugh O’Brien’s Wyatt Earp, Paladin, and the Cartwrights. That’s because Chuck wasn’t very good at those scenes, I think. They weren’t the Duke’s long suit either.

          • You and I were writing that at the same time. And as was noted at the time, that was the first extended death scene with an identified assailant on screen that Duke had (until The Shootist.) The Duke never perished on screen from a non-violent cause, and he didn’t lose many fights….and no fair ones. It took an army, a gang, a sneak attack or a giant squid to kill big John.

        • He didn’t have many of them on screen. What’s your proof? “The Shootist”? That was fine. “The Alamo”? A lance in the chest, a thrown torch, and kaboom. The death scene in “The Cowboys” was hard to watch, but it was believable. In “Sands of Iwo Jima, it was one sniper shot and dead. Duke never did a true deathbed scene at all.

          He was an excellent actor within his range, which was wider than he was given credit for while active. He handled tender scenes well, and better as he went along—I don’t see any evidence to support your statement.

          • The first death scene I ever saw him in was “The Fighting Seabees” and that one, I believe, was horrible. I couldn’t prove it now, but somewhere I saw an interview in which he, himself, said he couldn’t die real well, which is why he didn’t do death scenes much. I actually thought he did pretty good in “The Shootist”. And I agree, he was underrated as an actor. Witness the difference in characters in “True Grit” and “McQ”

            • The “Fighting Seebees” is not one of the Duke’s best, but then he did make over 250 films. Wayne was excessively self-deprecatory about his acting in interviews (as were Robert Mitchum and Clark Gable), perhaps because John Ford went out of his way to destroy his confidence, and critics exploited that—he was better than even he knew. There are few better performances on film than Wayne in “Red River” or “The Searchers.”

              Thanks for mentioning “McQ,” Wayne’s too late admission that he was foolish to turn down “Dirty Harry.” His scenes with the great Colleen Dewhurst as an old flame (they were good friends off-screen) are genuinely tender. And Duke driving a tiny sports car is a hoot. He could have been successful in more modern police roles, but that wasn’t the persona he constructed for 40 years, and the audiences wouldn’t go for it. So maybe he was right to pass that torch to Clint after all.

              • Gardner/Levy were the same producers for McQ and the Rifleman – and many others, including Duke’s visit to London as a hardened investigator, in Brannigan. (I was just a boy when my folks took me to London during the making, for my first trip overseas.

                As far as Duke dying in ‘Cowboys,’ I recall the screening, with most of the majors in the audience, and my reaction as a young’un; me seeing Duke die for the first time! My father was quite amused by my reaction. I’m not sure if my father was aware of that particular plot point, since once these things were put together, and contracts signed, he tended to fade into the next deal…our personal golden rule…we never discussed what we really thought about a movie until we were safely in the confines of our car on the way home from these things. Duke’s favorite movie of his by the way, was ‘Red River.’

                Spoke to the first hand source.

  5. Discussion on the gay issue here.

    I should mention (which I did on my FB post) that I was a fan of “The Rifleman.” Watched every episode, I think. What got me was that the sheriff appeared to be incompetent and always had to get The Rifleman to stand in for when push came to shove.

    Johnny Crawford was wonderful as his son.

  6. Getting back to Richard Boone and “Have Gun, Will Travel”, Boone actually was distantly related to Daniel Boone through Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s younger brother. He was also a naval gunner flying TBM Avenger torpedo bombers during WW2. I think this increases his cool factor.

    • I did not know that! Boone was a wonderful actor, handicapped by his unconventional looks. And a member of John Wayne’s extended company—he was one of the Duke’s final adversaries in his last role, in a typically quirky turn.

      • I first encounted Boone as a youngster watching his first series, “Medic.” Loved the show.

        He made a great villain in Paul Newman’s film “Hombre.” Wonderful prolonged shootout at the end of that film.

    • “Have Gun Will Travel” was my favorite, and Richard Boone made it so. The show was just more real to me than the others. I enjoyed the others – Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Rawhide – but those all seemed sanitized and unbelievable, even cheesy by comparison. (I don’t care what anyone else thinks; Hoss Cartwright should’ve had A BEARD.) But I was young and that wasn’t my fault. I especially liked the logo on Paladin’s card, and the theme song:

  7. I am too young for The Rifleman and, being a girl, the Western I watched for ethics lessons was Little House on the Prairie. Looking back — it was a little heavy handed — but it was also designed to be a family show, so I might be judging it a little harshly. I loved it and am planning on showing it to my girls in a few years. Also starred Michael Landon of Bonanza fame of course.

  8. I love a good Western but The Rifleman was probably a show my dad liked.
    I grew up on the Clint Eastwood Western.
    The only guy cooler than Clint in those movies was Steve McQueen… in any movie.
    I don’t know how much of the gunfighter’s behavior was ethics-driven, although I suspect a good portion of it was.
    It had to be for you to get and stay on his side of the situation.
    He didn’t kill anybody that didn’t need killing in the first place, and he treated women and his horse with respect and kindness.

    I also enjoy the western for its possibility of delivering great dialogue:

    “You are the stench in the nostrils of good men!” – Jimmy Stewart

    “Come in”
    “We’re a might rank, Mrs.” – Open Range

    “Why do you need all those guns when you only got one arm?”
    “I ain’t gonna die from lack of shootin'” – The Unforgiven

    “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” – The Sacketts

  9. “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie – Clint Eastwood as Outlaw Josie Wales…..I don’t think it was in -The Sacketts

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