Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rin Tin Tin and the Culture of Liberalism

As I have mentioned before in these blogs, dear unreaders, I have been watching a lot of what is now called retro television recently. I just can’t get into “new” shows, speaking of retro TV, like “The Secret Circle”, Kevin Williamson's recent retread of the witchcraft genre, for a variety of reasons. What I have enjoyed during my sojourn through retro television has been the opportunity it has afforded me to see shows I haven’t seen for years and have only very fuzzy memories of or to see shows I have never seen before.

I recently watched an episode of the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959), a show about a boy and his dog that I think I have seen before in reruns but my memory is fuzzy here. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, of course, is just one television show in the boy or man and his animal buddy subgenre that proved popular on television in the 1950s and 1960s and even, to some extent, beyond. Think Lassie (CBS, 1954-1973), Adventures of Champion (CBS, 1955-1956), My Friend Flika (CBS, 1956-1957), Circus Boy (NBC, 1956-1957, ABC, 1957-1958), Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (CBS, 1955-1958), Belle et S├ębastien (1965-1970, a French TV show dubbed and run on the BBC), The Adventures of Black Beauty (ITV, 1972-1974), The New Adventures of Black Beauty (ITV, 1990-1991), Due South (CTV, 1994-1999), and The Adventures of the Black Stallion (Family Channel, 1990-1993), for example). This subgenre, of course, has precedents in literature, film, and radio.

The episode I watched of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo”, was fascinating to me because I am someone who has a strong interest in how ideology works and functions. And ideology is really working and functioning in this episode of the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” begins with Rusty (Lee Aaker), the character, along with Rin Tin Tin, on whom Adventures of Rin Tin Tin centres, Rin Tin Tin, Lieutenant Ripley "Rip" Masters (James Brown), the solder who has adopted Rusty after he was orphaned by an Indian attack, and a group of US soldiers assuring a group of Chiricahua Apaches that they are in Chiricahu territory--The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin is set on the Arizona frontier in the nineteenth century-- not on a mission of conquest but rather to insure that a recent treaty signed between the Chiricahua and the US government which keeps White buffalo hunters out of Chiricahua territory is enforced. After Lt. Masters explains why the military has entered Ciricahua territory Rusty, who has heard Komawi (Norman Frederic), the son of the Chiricahua chief, mention to Masters that they are in search of buffalo, asks to accompany the Chiricahua braves on their search for the increasingly illusive buffalo. Masters agrees and off Rusty and Rin Tin Tin go on in search of buffalo. During the search Rusty, playing the role of a subpint ethnographer, learns about the importance of the buffalo to the Chiricahua way of life and how they, unlike White hunters, use every part of the buffalo in their everyday lives. Later he meets Komawi’s father who tells him about the significance of the white buffalo.

This being television there is, of course, another plot tale going on alongside the Rusty and the Indians one. In this subplot white hunters appear in Chiricahu territory while Rusty and the braves are engaged in their search for the buffalo. One of these hunters, Keller, played with appropriate roughness and gruffness by Richard Reeves, is clearly racist. After Masters and the troops arrive just in time to save the Chiricahua from the White hunters Keller, who has lied to Masters about the hunters intentions—Rusty tells Masters the true story—Keller and his gang of hunters are ordered to leave Chiricahua territory by the Lt. Keller, though he and his men leave, is not happy with what happened and he makes plans to return to Chiricahua territory to shoot the red man, Komawi, who had the audacity to touch him, a White Man. The other hunters who are interested simply in hunting and don't seem to be racists like Keller (is the moral here that only few Americans were and are really racist?), refuse to return to kill any Indians. In the final act of this twenty-five or so minute teleplay Keller shoots Komawi. He escapes only to be chased down by the soldiers, Rusty,and Rin Tin Tin. Eventually Rusty captures Keller. Keller, however, escapes when Rusty is unable to shoot him. In a kind of Montezuma’s revenge ending Keller escapes only to be trampled to death in a buffalo stampede. Rusty, threatened by the same buffalo stampede, is saved when he sees the white buffalo once, twice, but not again.

What I found so interesting about this episode of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was, as I mentioned earlier, its ideological work. On one level “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” (2:6, 14 October 1955) is a classical liberal American television show from the fifties similar in its portrayal of Indians to shows like Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-1962, ABC, 1962-1965). The horse soldiers and Rusty treat America’s First Peoples with respect and even as, to some extent, fully human. Rusty even comes to understand the Indian point of view about the importance of buffalo, about Indian mythologies about the white buffalo, and about how Whites, hunting buffalo for sport or simply to eliminate the nineteenth century red threat, are threatening the Native American way of life. All of us, of course, learn an important lesson about the evils of racism. Whether the burgeoning civil rights movement was in the background of this episode is something only empirical historical research, archival and oral history, can reveal.

On another level “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” creates an imaginary American past where America’s horse solders act paternally to protect the American Indians, one pole in the “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo’s” narrative, from greedy and racist American buffalo hunters, the other pole. There is irony here, of course, since America’s soldiers, the middle and hence mediating pole of this episode (those Americans just love their great middle), were the very group who massacred and mutilated American First Peoples throughout the nineteenth century. On this second ideological narrative, in other words, the US military becomes the embodiment of dispassionate law and order that protects all, Indians or buffalo hunters. Whether readers of “Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo” made a metaphorical connection between Rin Tin Tin’s horse solders and the forces of military and police order in 1950’s America is a question only empirical reader response analysis can answer.

The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, by the way, was produced by Herbert B. Leonard who would go on to produce two innovative and important adult television shows in the late 50's and early 60's with with realist, verite, and liberal sentiments, Naked City (ABC, 1958-1963) and Route 66 (CBS, 1960-1964), both of which involved substantial, and in the case of Route 66, total location shooting. Leonard and his work is worthy of article or book length academic study but is, sad to say, unlikely to get one in an academy enthralled and mesmerised by new television shows and the newest and trendiest television auteurs and metteurs en scene (academics and the fads of the moment). "Rin Tin Tin and the White Buffalo" was written by Douglas Heyes whose credits include Maverick (ABC, 1957-1962), 77 Sunset Strip (ABC, 1958-1964), Ice Station Zebra (film, 1960), McCloud (NBC, 1970-1977), Night Galley (NBC, 1970-1973), and Alias Smith and Jones (ABC, 1971-1973).

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