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 here, here 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
AND HE’S TAUGHT IT TO HIS SON
SPEAK SOFTLY TO YOUR ENEMY
BUT LET HIM SEE YOUR GUN!
THEY CALL HIM THE RIFLEMAN
THE STRONG, COURAGEOUS RIFLEMAN
A GREAT BIG MOUNTAIN OF A MAN!