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Many of us are old enough to remember when Bonanza owned Sunday night right after ‘Ed Sullivan’ led the way an hour earlier on another network. The huge popularity of TV westerns in the early 60s was not lost on kids from that era. What was lost on us: the incredible bloodshed produced by the principle characters in TV westerns. A high body count was part of the furniture in almost every episode and the simple plot lines obscured some important facts about firearms . . .

I recently viewed a Bonanza DVD, part of a four-disc collection of the iconic TV western. The DVD was fished-out of a bargain bin; seems like it got a cheaper price tag because it did not have the signature Bonanza theme song.

The replacement sound track was a random blend of ultra-bland guitar and elevator music melody that almost broke my will to watch the episodes. There were nine episodes, and only one had no dead guys by the closing credits and attendant crappy replacement music.

Episode 1 on the disc was the one without bloodshed because ‘Bonanza’ liked to include comedic episodes as an occasional respite from ventilated bad guys. The other eight episodes had plenty of corpses, but I decided to count only the death-by-Cartwright bodies in them.

The important thing to remember was that every dead guy was righteously dead from a bullet (or knife wound in one case) fired (or inflicted) by one of the four Cartwrights. Apparently the only good Cartwright was a dead Cartwright in the eyes of a vast segment of people in frontier Nevada.

The final body count was 16 guys that died in a conflict with the Cartwrights. Hotheaded Little Joe led the way with six dead guys including an expired gypsy with a Little Joe shiv in him.

Not-so-kindly-and-lovable Hoss dispatched five misfits, while the cerebral Adam bagged four lowlifes and Pa only managed one kill.

TV westerns were always meant as an entertaining form of escapism where forces of good always prevailed over the forces of evil. But the actual physical and emotional results of a typical Cartwright firefight were never evident in the shows.

Exit wounds were never evident and extreme blood loss from a mortal bullet wound was also missing in action. Most of the bad guys were gut- shot, yet this incredibly painful gunshot wound always produced a quiet and rapid death.

There were no primal screams of agony lingering over a long and protracted period as the villains bled out on the screen. The largest display of pain was halting speech as a guy conveyed his last message before his final head turn.

Death was actually a pretty clean process for all involved in a Cartwright gun death. The dead bad guys required little or no blood and splattered tissue clean up after they expired from a gunshot wound, plus the Cartwright boys seemed genuinely unconcerned about their roles as grim reapers of the Comstock Lode.

Big Hoss had an uncharacteristic moment of compassion after he dusted the escaped convict father of a kid he had befriended, but he quickly recovered in time to shoot another escaped convict.

Bonanza’s laundered version of what really happens when “the bullet meets the bone”(to quote Golden Earring in song) was all that was allowed on TV in the 60s. At the time it was probably all that a little kid needed to know about the subject.

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  1. Your point is well taken about how surprisingly high the body count was in Bonanza, and how “bloodlessly” the violence was presented.
    It seems like most modern cop shows and action films do the same thing. When bad guys are hit it still seems like they suffer very little, even as the squibs showing the rounds hitting have gotten redder and burst with more elan.

  2. At least the Cartwrights hit their targets; the next generation’s shoot-em-up, The A-Team, went through thousands of rounds without hitting a dang thing. (Which, now that I think about it, is probably more realistic anyway.)

  3. TV westerns are responsible for the myth of the wild shoot ’em up west. The 19th century Wild West was far less wild then the urban “civilized” centers of the same era.

  4. Shows of that era employed a highly sanitized and ritualized type of violence. There was little or no blood, people who were shot always expired quietly except for the obligatory farewell speech, and good always triumphed in the end. Westerns and Detective programs were the “worst” offenders. Despite the number of shootings on Bonanza or Gunsmoke, Mannix made them look tame by comparison.

    • I knew you were going to say Mannix even before I read to the end of your post – +1! Western-wise though, Rawhide was the best. Then there was Combat and the Rat Patrol, both high body count, low blood loss classics.

  5. They’ve been showing The Rifleman on Saturday mornings on AMC and I was thinking the same thing. Almost every episode someone gets shot. Much effort is expended in keeping the boy from seeing it, but he sees maybe 50/50 of the killings.

    That being said, I don’t care- it’s a great show. I’m ‘only’ 42 so I missed it the first time around.

  6. In my early 80s hunter safety course, we watched a nifty little 16mm movie that showed just how unrealistic those classic Western TV shows were. It showed simulated, but medically realistic depictions of the real blood loss, tissue damage, and overall trauma inflicted by gunshot wounds.

    By the end of the movie, the hypothetical cowboy hero had grazed himself in the leg from an AD after loading six rounds in his six-shooter, and had his arm amputated after being ‘winged’ by a bad guy’s rifle.

  7. Another staple of TV/movie gunfights is the minor through-and-through shot to the shoulder, which the hero shrugs off as little more than a gnat bite. Shoulders of course are full of bone, which would blow up like a bomb on impact.

  8. Actually, Bonanza was first aired on Saturday nights, specifically designed as a marketing and promotional vehicle for color television. (The program’s sponsor, RCA, owned NBC.) The program was filmed around Lake Tahoe with the production design devised to be as colorful and picturesque as possible, with grand scenic vistas, etc – all of which was intended to make people go out and buy color TV sets.

    After two seasons, the program was moved to Sunday night with Chevrolet sponsorship and evolved into a more conventional TV western, with predictable story lines revolving around the Cartwright family. To cut the high production costs, the characters wore the same costumes every week, making the stunts and action cut-ins much easier and reducing the stock catalog. Over time, the characters also exhibited personal growth, as invariably occurs in episodic television. Originally, Hoss was something close to the village idiot while Little Joe was the resident dickhound. As their character arcs advanced they became more rounded personalities.

    If it comes from Hollywood, it’s bullshit. King Kong was 18 inches tall.

  9. Duke westerns were bloodless for the most part with the Duke saying Ow! when he was shot in the leg. I remember Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Mannix, & we can’t forget about Barnaby Jones. On that show I always laughed when they had him running all over the place with his revolver in hand yelling “hold it!!! before nailing a bad guy. The stuff they made old Barnaby do! I remember Matt Dillion icing a bad guy who just shot a guy on the street & ran past Matt drivng into town on a buck board. In that case Matt shot him in the back…..but he was a really bad guy. Oh, remember Combat & how stupid the Germans were always getting in the way of Little John, Kirby, etc shooting at them?

    They were funs shows and in this current era of tv where we have to watch commercials about ED, match making, or incondenence, r reality tv with idiots towing cars, etc, I sometimes long for that old entertainment.
    Rob Drummond
    Hillsboro, NH

  10. Dang Jim it sounds like you dont like Bonanza…. and the 4 disk set must have been all of the episodes that the could find the had blood because if you watched em when the came out and grew up on them or even watched the reruns …. its not too often that they have bloodshed not considering how long the show ran….

  11. Well researched piece Jim – The tally of sixteen dead seems way too low, even so LJ’s killing of the dude who entered singing, whose traveling show was a disguised brothel, was nuthin’ short of murder!

    The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors in the title role, had bloodshed on a similarly massive scale!

    About then and around the time of Perry Mason, whose private detective sidekick murdered a witness in cold blood in one of the last episodes, I realized television violence was way too close to the bone!

    Cinema violence no less – A movie had crows and murder as a theme, with a female lead whose name escapes me who always reminds of Angie Dickenson.

    A high profile celebrity detective “from the coast” played by a studio actor, was assigned the case, he appeared to have been murdered on screen..

    He was sitting in a car negotiating the arrest of a suspect according to the script, when someone shot him in the middle of the forehead!

    Cheers, MT Brisbane Australia 🙂

  12. Thanks for doing the body-count research for me. I’m 61 and grew up during that TV era. Recently I’ve been bed-ridden and watch that same 32-episode, 4 DVD collection and I began to wonder about number of “justifiable killings” within the series. Since you counted 16 by the Cartwrights, and there are 400 episodes, then simple math tells us they may have accounted for approximately 200 deaths. No wonder Michael moved on to Highway to Heaven….to pay penance. Before you take me too serious, don’t.

  13. I agree with you about Hollywood’s distorted depiction of gun violence but in spite of the gun play Bonanza often addressed the negative impact of what violence in general. I just watched an episode where a young boy was excited by the prospect of a gun fight until he sees the dead body of a killer. This one episode is indicative of many of the Cartwright’s adventures and at one point it dawned on me that this program was a very liberal minded show as the covered many liberal subjects albeit with the social norms of the 60s. The overall meaning of the writer is what the production trys to convey and thus the lack of realism which I believe has an impact itself that negatively affect society but that’s for another time.

  14. If you want violence, check out the first two seasons of, “The Untouchables.” “The Rusty Heller Story,” is drenched in mayhem. Great stuff.

    • Yes, The Untouchables had really violent and ruthless “gangsters” shooting everybody
      and everything; including women and children. The show was the most violent until
      “Hawaii Five-0” took the title in 1965.

  15. ‘Escapism?’ Hardly. That term has been used for decades to dismiss anything that critics don’t respect. But critics are a tiny fringe of the populace, comprised of mostly vile and repellent people. No need whatsoever to devote any time to worrying over their opinions, about ANYTHING. You could sit a boy in front of Bonanza for an hour each afternoon, and if that’s all the moral education he ever got, or all the masculine example he ever observed, he’d be in reasonably sound shape. FAR better than what most of our boys get today, that’s for certain. ‘Realism’ is a very misleading term…there are a great many ‘real’ phenomena that critics, almost by definition, know nothing about. Bonanza is all about traditional virtue, masculinity, and love of home…what liberal knows(or CARES)anything about those things?

  16. I’m not really sure what point the author is attempting to make here, but television (and for that matter, motion pictures) was never intended to be “real”. It was entertainment, meant to sell products through the commercials that supported each show. Yes, there was a lot of violence depicted, and it obviously was not often historically accurate, so what?

    I grew up in the sixties and seventies on the many westerns, cop shows, and horror movies of the era. My friends and I had a plethora of toy firearms, played “cowboys”, played “army”, and were saturated with the story lines of those old shows. The fact is, they taught some great moral lessons. The good guys always won, there was a clear line between right and wrong, and the heroes were (while idealised) a highly positive influence.

    Compared to the trash that passes for “entertainment” these days– “Mom” where the mother and grandmother are substance abusers and the granddaughter had a kid out of wedlock in the second season, or “Two and A Half Men”, which glorifies broken families and sexual debauchery including an illegitimate lesbian daughter– a few dead bad guys seems like a big win. It’s no wonder our society is so screwed up now that the schools we send our kids to no longer know the difference between a boy and a girl, and are entirely ignorant of the most basic morality and common sense.

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