Bolt from the Blue
by Mike Nevins, Saint Louis University School of Law (December 1997)
Only a small number of the countless Western feature films made since the dawn of talkies dealt centrally with legal themes, but one that left an enduring mark on other Western features and on Western TV series was THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (20th Century-Fox, 1943), the anti-lynching classic directed by William Wellman and starring Henry Fonda. In the thirty years between OX-BOW and the more recent classic DIRTY HARRY (1971; directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood) it was an axiom in Westerns, questioned about as often as the existence of God is questioned within the four walls of a church, that due process of law is sacred; that taking the law into one's own hands via lynch mob or vigilante organization or by any other means was never justified no matter what the situation or provocation.
One of the unique aspects of the television series MAVERICK (starring James Garner as Bret Maverick) was its delight in parodying other Western features and TV series, and perhaps its finest hour in this vein is Bolt from the Blue (November 27, 1960; written and directed by Robert Altman), in which the satiric target is OX-BOW itself. In this episode, Beauregard Maverick (Roger Moore) catches a sly old man named Eben Bolt (Tim Graham) trying to horsenap his mighty stallion Gumlegs but then they're both captured by a mob of ranchers and townsmen chasing Bolt and his elusive partner Benson January, who have "dehorsed the countryside." Starky (Charles Fredericks) and the rest of the mob take Maverick to be January and are about to lynch both men on the spot when the party is interrupted by a bumptious youth (Will Hutchins) who never gives his name but can only be Tom Brewster from SUGARFOOT.
When mob member Bradley (Percy Helton) begins to get queasy about lynching the prisoners, Starky decides to resolve the issue democratically.
But before the circuit judge can be sent for there has to be a conference between attorney and client.
After the defender of legality has ridden off to find the circuit judge, Maverick takes aside the youngest member of the lynch mob (Arnold Merritt).
But when we get to meet Judge Hookstratten (Richard Hale), who's just finishing up another trial in town, we wonder whether Maverick might not do better without him. "It is the duty of the law to protect as well as to prosecute. It's our function to work for the accused, look after his interests as well as convict him. Now with these values firmly in mind, I now pronounce the defendant---GUILTY! HANG HIM!" The young lawyer rides into town soon after Hookstratten has left but in time to meet Angelica Garland (Fay Spain), who has just gotten off the stagecoach and has been hunting for the man who had left her waiting at the altar in St. Louis---Benson January. The two catch up with Hookstratten on the trail.
They arrive just in time to stop the impatient lynch mob from hanging Maverick and Bolt and Altman's version of a "proper trial" gets underway, with no one sworn in, no one cross-examined, and Angelica not only identifying Maverick as Benson January but trying to shoot him where he stands. The mob serves as jury and deliberates for roughly a nanosecond.
Bolt, "out of gratitude and due respect for the law," pays the judge's fee out of Maverick's bankroll and, preparing to ride off, happens to mention that it's Sunday.
We are still only about halfway through the film, and Altman continues to pile twist upon comic twist and character upon bizarre character much as he would do on the big screen a decade later in M*A*S*H (1970), leaving us with perhaps the only TV Western episode that uses legal themes as the basis for anarchic farce.