Sunday, July 20, 2014


"The Indian" was one of two "back-door pilots" that appeared on the successful Old West teleseries THE RIFLEMAN. This Feb 1959 episode introduced the titular hero Lucas McCain to Sam Buckheart (Michael Ansara), a federal marshal who was also a full-blood Apache Indian. This episode, and a follow-up story that aired in June 1959, pilot led to a new series from THE RIFLEMAN's production company, entitled LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN. The new series debuted in October 1959 but enjoyed only a year before cancellation.

The follow-up story is all right but the first pilot, "The Indian," excels in its dramatic presentation of the travails of the guest hero, trying to make it in the white man's world of the 1880s without losing his identity as an Indian. The episode has the distinction of being directed by Arnold Laven, one of the collaborators responsible for creating THE RIFLEMAN, and being written by Cyril Hume, scripter for both 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN and 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Lucas McCain is initially put off by the incongruity of seeing an Indian as a federal marshal-- as is his son Mark, who remarks, "What's this world coming to?" But given that he's a pretty liberal fellow despite the general prejudice of the nearby town of North Fork, Lucas does what he can to help the marshal. He's not too happy with Buckheart's arrogance; in the scene shown above, Buckheart enters the "whites only" saloon in North Fork and allows the locals to think he's one of them. This is a dangerous version of "passing," especially since Buckheart's got his telltale "long Indian hair" bunched up under his hat.

Though this is a tale with a liberal agenda, it's not uncritical of Buckheart. He has a complex history with the white man, in that he was adopted by an older cavalry officer after Sam spared the man's life in battle. He spares the officer upon realizing that "his white flesh was weaker than my Indian flesh;" however, the Apache apparently becomes acculturated very easily, and accepts the officer's largesse in order to attend Harvard, resulting in a "savage" who can quote from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (One guess which famous line he quotes from it.) Lucas recognizes that Sam is baiting the white folks when he passes amongst them, and he criticizes Buckheart for his stubborness about going it alone against a town that won't stand for an Indian taking custody of a white prisoner.

Overall, it's a good drama, with a less violent conclusion than most episodes of the early RIFLEMAN show. I don't remember LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN very well, though I saw it in reruns years ago, but
Ansara and Chuck Connors play off one another very well as two western tough guys with essentially noble hearts.

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