Johnny Yuma was a rebel
He roamed through the West
And Johnny Yuma, the rebel
He wandered alone
Timeless' 11-DVD collection of The Rebel offers both seasons and all 76 episodes of the 1959-1961 half-hour Western, each uncut with the iconic theme song sung by Johnny Cash. The series, which originally aired on ABC, is a provocative and distinctive example of the genre and is itself worthy of a purchase, but a solid group of extras give the set significant added value.
Let's get the bad news out of the way: Each disc contains this disclaimer - 'The episodes of The Rebel included in this set were mastered directly from 16mm prints. Due to the age and condition of the prints, some image and audio artifacts are present.' The visual quality varies throughout the 76 episodes, some looking pretty good and others appearing much rougher. At least one episode, 'The Guard,' shows obvious signs of damage to the source material, and many seem somewhat darker than they should be. However, the audio is fine in each episode I've screened, and the picture quality never ruins the presentation.
Those who expect The Rebel to look like it does on Me-TV will be disappointed; apparently those syndication prints are not the ones used for this collection. However, those versions don't include the theme song and are trimmed of several minutes per episode.
The Rebel is a tightly scripted half hour, and I can't imagine appreciating it with 10%-15% of it cut, so while it would be great if Timeless procured sharper-looking materials, I'll take these 16-mm-sourced shows if they are intact. Based on the running times, the presence of the original theme song, and the fact that even the old sponsor logos are present in the end credits, I think it's safe to assume these are as close to night of broadcast as we will get.
Instead of focusing on what this DVD set isn't, let's examine what it is by discussing the series itself. The Rebel depicts the adventures of Johnny Yuma, a Confederate veteran roaming through the West after the war's end. Yuma's insistence on wearing the distinctive garb of a Southern soldier, particularly the cap, advertises his affiliation. Throughout the series, he's often called 'Reb,' usually in a derogatory manner by his enemies, but also by his friends and former colleagues.
Star and co-creator Nick Adams brings an off-kilter charisma to the role of Yuma. He's physically short for a Western hero, Alan Ladd notwithstanding, often delivering his lines in a hushed, subdued manner. This is the vibe the show intended. As the TV Obscurities website reported when researching the series, Yuma was promoted as a 'Reconstruction beatnik.' Adams was well known in part for being James Dean's friend. He had a part in Dean's seminal film Rebel Without a Cause. Producers hoped to use some of that cachet to make the character a 'rebel' not just in the Confederate sense, but in terms of being out of step with society.
In the pilot, 'Johnny Yuma,' the soldier returns to his hometown a year after the Civil War's conclusion and, feeling alienated from the people and place, decides to continue traveling the country. His ultimate goal is to be a writer, and in an exchange with guest star John Carradine, he agrees with the notion he should do more living to discover what's worth recording. Hence, Yuma wanders through the West with a journal in hand, visiting various towns and writing about his adventures. The journal doesn't feature prominently, or at all, in each story, but in episodes such as 'School Days,' (Yuma becomes a schoolteacher), it's clear Johnny values it and the process of chronicling his adventures.
The Rebel is somewhat reminiscent of shows like Have Gun Will Travel in that it's almost like an anthology, with the main character interacting with different people in different circumstances each time out. Johnny Yuma is the only constant, as there are no other recurring characters. Johnny often appears distant and pensive, but he's quick to action when he sees injustice. In 'Glory,' he comes to the aid of a woman left stranded in the desert. In 'Paperback Hero,' he dives into an epic tumult over a rogue's refusal to pay a shoeshine boy.
Yuma is a dynamo, skilled with his distinctive scattergun but also adept with his fists, and the show is not shy about featuring gunfights and brawls. He is not only content to let his hands do his talking, though; although he is soft-spoken, he dispenses wisdom when he must, sometimes quoting Scripture, sometimes quoting contemporaries. At the end of one episode, he's told his profound quote sounds a lot like Abraham Lincoln. Nope, Yuma responds while riding away, it's Robert E. Lee.
One of the fascinating aspects of this program is the Confederate identity Yuma embraces. As a lover of classic television in its original form, I try not to judge a 55-year-old show by modern standards. However, in 2015 it is undeniably odd to see an unrepentant soldier of the Confederacy the hero of a weekly television program. The Rebel's relationship with the Civil War is complex. In the standout episode 'Johnny Yuma at Appomattox,' Johnny tells a vengeful youngster how he spent the end of the war, flashing back to Grant and Lee's meeting to establish terms of surrender and how he plotted to assassinate the Union general! There's much more to the story than that, however, and this powerful outing seems to represent the series' attitude towards the war. Just make sure you watch it before you see the interview with producer Andrew Fenady on the bonus disc, as he gives away the entire thing.
Yuma clearly laments the pain and suffering the war caused in the country. His own yearning for meaning stems from the horrors he experienced. Yet he has not abandoned the uniform, despite the risk he takes by wearing it. In 'Vicious Circle,' when he walks into a saloon and encounters a group of ex-Grays, Yuma gladly accepts their offer to drink with them, and he even seems relieved to find some comrades. When he hears of an ex-officer's plan to restart the war, Yuma doesn't outright dismiss it. Maybe he's humoring him, but it's only when he learns of the man's mistreatment of prisoners that he rejects him.
The series often depicts the Civil War more as an abstraction than as a battle over concrete issues. The devastating effect of the struggle on losers and winners alike is a common theme, and the need for healing is always on the surface, but you're more likely to hear about concepts such as honor than about tariffs and states' rights. I have only seen a dozen of the 76 episodes in this box set, so I may have missed something, but I have yet to see one mention of slavery, nor any African-American character, for that matter.
'Blind Marriage' deals with anti-Chinese prejudice, and bigotry against Native Americans is a recurring topic, yet the elephant in the room, at least to modern audiences, isn't addressed (at least not that I have seen). Of course, given the culture in 1959-1961 America and the general avoidance of controversy in prime time, it's not surprising, but it is notable. In 'The Hope Chest,' when guest star William Demarest asks Yuma why he won't accept the 'gift' of his daughter's hand in marriage, Yuma replies, 'I just don't think anybody has the right to sell a human life,' to which I want to point to his cap and say, 'Uh...hello!'
The Rebel's format consists of an opening scene, two acts, and a closing tag. Other shows of the era often begin with a teaser or an actual piece of footage from later in the show, but The Rebel drops the audience right into the middle of a dramatic situation, usually getting off to a compelling start, then launches the credits and theme song. Johnny Cash is the perfect singer for The Ballad of Johnny Yuma. I never saw the series growing up, but I knew about the theme song. It's a classic, concise intro to the title character (the end credits feature the longer version), and its inclusion on this set is essential after syndicators replaced it to avoid the licensing fee, as Fenady points out on the bonus disc.
A variety of writers contribute screenplays, and nearly half the episodes are directed by Irvin Kershner, who later went on to guide Empire Strikes Back. Most employ straightforward storytelling, with some location shoots sprinkled in with studio interiors and Paramount backlot sets. One motif The Rebel uses often is a shot of a distinctive object or symbol as a visual transition, such as a close-up of a flame prefiguring a discussion of a volatile situation, or even of fire itself. Much of The Rebel takes place at night, in contrast to many other contemporary Westerns, adding to the thematic ambiguity and the often dark mood of the series.
There aren't a whole lot of surprises in these stories, but the plots are compelling, the dialogue is convincing, and the series does justice to its wandering loner theme, blending happy endings with some more unsettled conclusions. Much of your enjoyment of these will depend on your fondness for the unconventional Nick Adams. To my eye, he is not as magnetic as other half-hour Western leads like Richard Boone and Steve McQueen (but not many are) and not as substantial as the towering James Arness, but he grows on you, and the overall production quality serves Adams and the Yuma character well.
Even if you're not a big fan of Adams, you can enjoy vivid turns by a host of guest stars, as the series format brings new performers in each week. Well, they're not always brand-new; I have seen less than half the episodes so far, but Ed Gordon seems to appear in every other one. Yet his intensity leaves an impression each time out, perhaps most notably as a tormented former Union prison official in 'The Guard.'
Leonard Nimoy shows palpable desperation as a fugitive in 'The Hunted.' Soupy Sales is in two episodes, though neither is a big role, nor a 'Soupy' one. Marie Windsor stands out in the aforementioned 'Glory,' and James Best gives a memorable performance as a former soldier addicted to pain meds in 'Night on a Rainbow.' Other notable guests include Robert Vaughn, Jack Elam, Victor Buono, and Dan Blocker, who helps get the series off to a strong start in the pilot. Cathy O'Donnell's fragile beauty is utilized well as the single daughter in 'The Hope Chest' and also as a blind woman in 'You Steal My Eyes.'
'The Rebel' in unedited form is cause enough for celebration, but the disc of bonus material really makes this a great box set. The primary extra is 'Looking Back at The Rebel,' a conversation with producer and co-creator Andrew 'A.J.' Fenady lasting over an hour. Looking decades younger than his 86 years, the cigar-chomping Fenady covers a wide range of topics with gusto. Asked, 'How did you get Agnes Moorehead to do a Rebel?' He quickly says, 'Money!' before elaborating. He discusses various aspects of production and reports that he envisioned Yuma's writer/adventurer as a fictionalization of Jack London.
The other prominent bonus is that never-aired pilot for The Yank, starring James Drury (later The Virginian) as a former Union doctor who would presumably roam through post-Civil War America. It's an intriguing show and a welcome DVD treat. Rounding out the disc is an enjoyable featurette with two of Adams' children discussing his legacy, plus a fun reel of sponsor promos with the star touting the quality of products like Cheer detergent and L&M cigarettes.
Rumors of a DVD release of The Rebel circulated for years, and Timeless has delivered with a fine box set. Let's hope this is not just a holdover, but a sign that Timeless is still an active player in the classic TV game. The unedited episodes, supplemental material, and overall caliber of the series compensate for the condition of the prints to make this complete series collection a highly recommended purchase.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.