Head ‘em up, move ‘em out! The first season of the classic western television series Rawhide starring Eric Flemming and Clint Eastwood comes to Blu-ray. Big on action and drama, a gang of cowhands running the Sedalia Trail encounters everything from bad weather to dastardly bandits to devastating women with a parade of iconic guest actors. ViaVision delivers all 22 episodes of the first season in glorious 1080p with excellent transfers and audio tracks for every episode. You don’t have to be an Eastwood fan to enjoy this series - Highly Recommended
Drive boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) is an honest man commanding a team of the toughest drovers along the Sedalia Trail. With his righthand man ‘Ramrod’ Rowdy Yates (some guy called Clint Eastwood), and his surly cook Wishbone (Paul Brinegar), they’ll face any number of obstacles. From towns none too kind to drovers to diabolical bandits to enchanting women, the herd has to keep traveling. One way or another, Favor will do everything it takes to bring in his cattle and make sure his men get paid what they’re owed.
Now a bit of a confession/apology to our Star Trek 4K fans… watching this show is what caused our coverage delays. Most of the time I can easily watch a show or movie while prepping and writing reviews, but not this time. I plum got sucked into the show. It’d been the better end of twenty years since I’d seen any episodes and I couldn’t stop watching it. Before I’d even realized it several minutes or even complete episodes had gone by and I hadn’t made a lick of progress grabbing images or editing videos or rolling out my thoughts on the individual films. So again, for those fans irked I was a bit slow getting our Next Generation 4-Film Collection coverage out, I am sorry. What can I say, I love Westerns and I’m an Eastwood fan!
Back in the long ago before comic books and superheroes were the main source of movie and television entertainment, Westerns were the popular brand of the day. On top of countless A and B pictures, you had shows like The Virginian, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and countless others that were lucky to last longer than a few episodes. Rawhide was lucky to be a hit and last eight seasons and over 200 episodes spawning novelizations and even a comic book series of its own - to say nothing of the lasting impact of the infectious Frankie Laine theme song.
Even with an ensemble cast of great actors, Rawhide endures in large part because it was the big career break for screen legend Clint Eastwood. As a young ’un, you can see he’s feeling out his craft. In early episodes, he hasn’t quite mastered subtlety with his “Oh, boy! Gee golly!” charms and movements. But by the time you get to the Ox-Bow Incident-inspired episode Incident Below the Brazos (which features impressive guest appearances by Martin Landau and Leslie Nielsen), Eastwood had mastered his iconic steely-eyed take-no-guff demeanor. It’s on this show he’d also frequently work with one of his often under-credited mentors, director Ted Post.
While Eastwood may be the draw to revisit the series today, Rawhide was Eric Fleming’s show, and he commands it well as a believable drive boss. Opening every episode as if reading from a diary, Fleming’s deep baritone voice sets the stage for the events to come. Smart and reasonable, he’s just as quick with a gun as he is prone to talking out troubles before they escalate. Sadly he would drown while filming another show in Peru at only 41 years old. As evidenced by this series and his other television appearances, Fleming deserved a much longer career.
Digging through these episodes in rapid succession, I liked that it felt like a 1:1 ratio of episodes that were resolved by talking through differences as those with a big climactic gunfight. Westerns (among other TV genres) were singled out in Newton Minow’s infamous “Vast Wasteland” speech - but I like to think that a show like Rawhide would get a pass. Not to say every episode was the best thing ever written or filmed, but most of what made up this first season could easily have held true as a standalone film let alone be part of an ongoing series.
In addition to Fleming and Eastwood, series regulars included Paul Brinegar as the surly cook Wishbone, Sheb Wooley as the scout Pete Nolan, James Murdock as the simple cook’s assistant Mushy, and Steve Raines as Jim Quince. As much fun as the main cast is, it’s the guest stars that often steal the show. In addition to Leslie Nielsen and Martin Landau, Martin Balsam, Peter Mark Richman, Dan Duryea, Rick Jason, Ed Nelson, Whit Bissell, and the voice of the devil herself Mercedes McCambridge - among numerous others - make appearances.
I finally discovered this show twenty-odd-some years ago late at night in college. I eventually picked up a couple of the DVD sets but never really came back to it. In the years since I’d forgotten just how much fun Rawhide was. As I said some episodes aren’t the best, I would describe Incident of the Curious Street as a particularly clunky under-plotted episode, but most are very entertaining. There’s enough drama to match gunfire so that the series doesn’t become repetitious or tiresome. There’s humor without gags being overplayed or stupidly slappy. From one episode to the next, Rawhide is just good solid entertainment with a fun recurring cast you look forward to seeing again and again.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ keep them Blu-rays rollin’ - Rawhide! The Complete first season of the iconic western series comes home to Blu-ray for the first time from Australian label ViaVision in a 5-Disc set. The artwork indicates these should be Region B discs, but after testing them on multiple setups, they’re in fact Region Free. Each disc is a BD-50 and can contain 4-5 episodes. The discs are housed in a five-disc case with individual trays and are not stacked with identical slipcase artwork. Each disc loads to a basic static-image main menu allowing you to pick a single episode or play all.
It’s been years since I last saw an episode of Rawhide so my basis of comparison is limited, but these Blu-ray transfers are often stunning. Maintaining the standard television 4:3 aspect ratio, each episode looks terrific and appropriately film-like offering clean and clear details with a suitable layer of natural film grain. Facial features, accents in gunbelts, and the dry desert locations all look terrific. If you’re really paying attention you can see when the same Western Town set on the Universal lot was being recycled! Some episodes are a little rough, the first reel of Incident at Barker Springs looks like it may have been sourced from duplicate elements, but by and large these episodes are in immaculate shape. I hardly noticed any sort of severe scratches or speckling worth taking note of. The grayscale for each episode is also terrific with some great deep inky blacks and strong shadow gradients giving each transfer a nice feel for depth and dimension. I was hoping for a leg up over the old DVDs, but these transfers are quite something for a 60-year-old television series.
On top of the great video transfers, each episode enjoys a robust LPCM 2.0 mono track. Occasionally some of the dialog can sound a little distant here and there, but that was a very rare occurrence. Otherwise, dialog, sound effects, and music cues are all right on point. It may have been a television show, but the sound design for each episode was often impressive giving the show a lively active feel for space and imaging. On top of being able to clearly see the set backdrops, you can hear that inorganic echo when the show moved into a soundstage for outdoor night scenes, but that was pretty common for any show or film at the time. Free of any serious snaps, crackles, or pops, each episode scores a winning audio track.
On the bonus features front, there’s not a lot in the bonus features package. While some interviews with surviving cast would have been interesting (which I think may only be Clint Eastwood at this point), I’m happy just to have the episodes looking and sounding as good as they do. In addition to the commercial break bumper, Incident of the Roman Candles is included. It was aired as either the 23rd episode of the first season or the second episode of the second season in some territories, so it’s been included here as well. It’s a fine episode but I enjoyed it more because it featured Roger Corman collaborators Beverly Garland and David McMahon. (Yes I know they both made better shows and films too but come on, you can’t top their work together on It Conquered The World with Peter Graves.)
At its peak popularity on the silver screen, there seemed to be just as many Western television series to tune into. While the genre was certainly over-saturated, a few broke through and managed to hold on. Rawhide probably wasn’t the best, but it was a lot of fun. Season One, like any show, was feeling itself out. It had to figure out which actors could hold the screen, and which characters people actually liked to see episode to episode, and then it had to cater to genre expectations with the storytelling limitations of television. As a whole, it’s a pretty damn solid first season. A bit bumpy in some spots, but overall the season delivered 22 solid episodes. Now on Blu-ray from Australia’s Viavision, this great series rolls out and gets underway on Blu-ray. Each episode looks and sounds fantastic, and honestly better than I’d hoped or expected. With hours of entertainment value, Rawhide is an essential piece of the collection for any Western fan. Highly Recommended.