Dec 7, 2009

DVD Review: Peter Graves In Whiplash: The Complete Series (1959-60)

Note: This is another one of those rare DVD sets that doesn’t work with my image capture software, so unfortunately I don’t have any screen shots with which to illustrate my review. It’s a real shame, because I had a great one picked out of Peter Graves holding an adorable baby lamb and making a Jim Phelps face. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

I love intersections between the mostly disparate worlds of British and American Sixties spy TV. There aren’t too many of them. While the same stable of guest stars tended to turn up on all the American spy shows of the era and the same on all the British ones, there wasn’t much crossover between the two pools. Peter Wyngarde popped up on an episode of I Spy, American Steve Forrest headed to Britain to star in The Baron and then back to the US where he popped up on a Mission: Impossible, and Joan Collins did guest stints on both sides of the Atlantic. I only recently became aware of another connection: before Peter Graves became the star of Mission: Impossible in its second season, he actually made three shows for Lew Grade’s ITC. None of them were spy shows, but just being an ITC show almost counts. And since ITC was the company behind The Saint, The Baron, Danger Man, The Prisoner and most of the other British spy adventure series of the time, it’s a good connection. And a surprising one, since Graves is so unrelentingly American! Of the three, only Court Martial (1965) was shot in Britain. The kid-friendly Western Fury (in which Graves played second fiddle to the titular horse) was one of the rare ITC programs produced in America. And the actor’s second Western for the company, Whiplash, was shot in Australia.

Lew Grade made all of his shows with an eye to the vast American market, and the biggest genre on American TV as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties was still the Western. Grade wanted a Western. But Britain had no convincing West, so he looked elsewhere: Australia. The result was a unique collaboration between British, Australian and American personnel. American Graves headlined the series as Christopher Cobb, founder of Australia’s first stagecoach line, Cobb & Co. I was surprised to discover that Cobb & Co. was real, although Graves’ character wasn’t. The actual line was founded by four Americans including one named Freeman Cobb, but they sold it after just a few years. For the fictional purposes of this show, though, it was Chris Cobb who blazed a trail through the Outback, tangling as he did so with countless highwaymen, convicts, Aborigines and even the odd lamb. The writing staff contained Australians and Americans, including future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and big-time novelist James Clavell. Other behind-the-scenes talent came from Britain, including ITC’s busiest musical director, Edwin Astley, who penned the infectious Western theme song for Whiplash prior to his more familiar work on Danger Man and The Saint.

Whiplash is now available to see on DVD (Region 2), as an online exclusive from UK company Network. And it’s a pretty interesting mixture of the American Western formula with the noble, solitary hero who helps people in need formula that would become ITC’s stock and trade over the next decade. Despite an opening song that declares "the only law a gun" in 1851 Gold Rush Australia, it’s not a quick-draw series. While Cobb sometimes uses a pistol, he doesn’t wear one strapped to his belt. He prefers a rifle, a boomerang or, best of all, given the title, a whip.

The first episode, "Convict Town," is fairly run-of-the-mill TV Western material, unique only for its setting. After watching it, I was afraid I was in for a rote 1950s American-style Western, which, frankly, isn’t really my genre. But the second episode, penned by Roddenberry, was much more promising and–fortunately–more of an indicator of the series as a whole. This episode explores Cobb’s aversion to firearms, which seems like a fairly British theme, and makes the show pretty unique among the many American-made Westerns airing at the time.

In "Episode in Bathurst," the Danvers, four ornery gunslingers from Texas ("That’s in America one impressed Australian tells a nonplussed Cobb, who replied, "I know.") take over a small Aussie town by bullying the residents with their quick draw skills. They start taking a commission of every business in town, including the stage line, which draws Cobb’s attention. His sidekick, Dan Ledward (Anthony Wickert), implores him not to walk into that deathtrap, but Cobb reasons, "Oh, I wouldn’t worry. You see Texans never leave Texas. And if they’re not Texans, they’re not so tough." It’s one of those great Graves deliveries. So off he goes.

Immediately, Perkins, the Cobb & Co. agent in town, assumes he’s come to solve the problem the American way, and hands him a gun in a holster. Cobb doesn’t want it.

"But you’re an American!" Perkins insists. "You’re the only one who can stop them!"

"Being an American doesn’t make me any more of a quick-draw artist than you are," replies Cobb. "Mr. Perkins, one of the things that I liked best about Australia when I first came here was the fact that you didn’t have to wear a piece of iron on your hip to prove you were a man."

Perkins still persists, thrusting the gun and holster at him. "Wearing one of these won’t help any," Cobb continues.

Perkins notes that, "Some folks see a lot of glamor in this fast-draw thing."

"That’s my point," says Cobb. "Sure I can strap this on, go out in the street. Maybe I can even beat the Danvers! But you know what’ll happen the next day? Every man in town will be wearing one of these. It’s ugly and stupid and vicious, but it could catch on." Wow! Who knew we had Peter Graves to thank for keeping guns out of Australia? Seriously, the anti-gun message is an unusual one to find on a Western, and I credit the British angle, although Roddenberry is obviously responsible for the crisp dialogue, which continues.

"What are we going to do?" demands the exasperated Perkins.

"I don’t know yet," Cobb admits. "I do know that this is not the answer. I only hope there is one." There is... and it’s a whip! Whipping is usually the answer on a series called Whiplash. (Actually, it’s not the answer as frequently as I hoped it would be after the first few episodes. But it does come in handy.) At the episode’s end, Cobb marches through town with his whip on his shoulder, calling out the eldest Danvers brother.

"Where’s your gun?" Danvers demands.

"All I need’s a whip," says Peter Graves. What follows is a really cool scene as Cobb outdraws Danvers with his whip, lashing the gunslinger’s wrist as he goes to draw, then whipping the gun out of each of his hands. He follows that up by whipping the gun away when he tries to pick it up, and eventually makes him "dance" with the whip. Cobb whips Danvers right out of town! As an Indiana Jones fan, I appreciate that kind of take on the classic Western showdown. Furthermore, it looks to actually be Graves doing a lot of the whipping. And he’s good at it! It’s too bad he never got a chance to show off this skill on Mission: Impossible! (If you’re looking for connections to Graves’ later series, I’d say that the shirt Cobb wears in almost every episode, with its thong-tied neck, wouldn’t be too out of place in Jim Phelps’ Seventies wardrobe...)

Most episodes (in the first half of the series, anyway) begin with an opening crawl that educates viewers on some pertinent historical fact about Australia. (The strangest one reminds us that Australia’s long heritage of theater "is represented today by such Australian artists as Merle Oberon, Peter Finch, Judith Anderson, and the late Errol Flynn.") The crawl in "Sarong" may be of special interest to readers of this blog, albeit unintentional:

"Australia 1840...

The discovery of pearl beds in the Tasman Sea created the same frenzy as the California gold rush.

As in America’s early history, this attracted a number of young women, called ‘bond girls’ who were sent as indentured servants to the colonizers."

That’s right; this episode calls for Peter Graves to save a bunch of Bond girls! What spy fan hasn’t been dreaming of such a contrivance? Bond girls have been disappearing somewhere on the stage run and not reaching the landowners who paid for servants. Naturally, Cobb must investigate. "Sarong" is a really good one: you get lots of beautiful girls, a Wild Wild West-style villain, and you even get to see Peter Graves chased by a shark! It’s fun. (And it’s another Roddenberry episode.)

James Clavell’s sole contribution, "Love Story in Gold," is unfortunately not as much fun. It’s a pretty mundane story that finds Cobb abducted by convicts and forced to marry their matriarch’s daughter. The matriarch is eager to make her a "lady," and Cobb is a proper "gentleman." How will Graves escape a shotgun wedding? "Dutchman’s Reef" is more interesting. Despite a sensationalist opening crawl that claims Australia’s native Aborigines are one of the world’s greatest mysteries ("Where did they come from?"), it actually sets a very positive tone for the generally respectful way the series will handle the country’s native people. As with gun control, Christopher Cobb, the most progressive cowboy of the TV West, once again espouses a refreshing (and, frankly, sort of pretentious) perspective on the matter. We also get another great Graves delivery when a thuggish prospector brags that he’s killed Aborigines to find his claim. "I want what’s coming to me!" the prospector insists.

Cobb gives him a withering look and replies, "Well, I hope you get it." The other highlight of "Dutchman’s Reef" is the opportunity it affords us to see Graves decked out in Jim West duds! This is his dress-up costume, and we’ll see it again throughout the series. It’s another one of those subtle, unintentional inter-textual dialogues between Sixties spy series that I’m always on the lookout for. Although it’s less obvious, perhaps Robert Conrad was returning the compliment by dressing a bit like Jim Phelps when he sported bad Seventies fashions in his later Mission: Impossible guest spots on "Killer" and "Break!..."

"The Other Side of Swan" is another episode with shades of The Wild Wild West. Not only does Cobb again don the Jim West duds, but he even accepts a secret mission from the Governor. It ends in an exciting rooftop fight.

Overall, Whiplash spans many different facets of the Western genre over the course of its thirty-four half-hour episodes, just as later ITC programs managed to do. It might be more comedic one week, then dramatic the next. Some episodes are dark, like "Divide and Conquer," in which Cobb and a haughty representative of the Queen do exactly that to turn the ruthless gang of cutthroats who have kidnapped them against each other. Others are lighter, like "Dilemma In Wool," in which Cobb discovers that the young couple he’s transporting in his stage are not carrying a baby in their bassinet, but smuggling a little lamb! It will grow into a Marino sheep, producing valuable wool what Australia is famous for. (Thank you, opening text crawl!) "I won’t be a party to sheep-stealing!" Cobb declares when he discovers the subterfuge. But everything works out alright, of course, with some additional animal cuteness involving a talented sheepdog.

There are even a few horror-tinged episodes (often dealing with Aboriginal superstitions), and mysteries. One delivers the Lifeboat-on-a-stagecoach premise that would fuel the spy episode of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. thirty-some years later: one of the five passengers on the stage is a murderer (sworn to kill Cobb), but which one? My favorite episode treads into Treasure of the Sierra Madre/Raiders of the Lost Ark territory: in "Secret of the Screaming Hills," Cobb acquires a treasure map from a dying man. It leads him into mountains that "scream" as the wind whistles furiously through holes in the rock. Astley incorporates this screaming into the music, creating a haunting scene in which Cobb digs through the night where X marks the spot as the wind wails and the sky darkens. It really reminded me of the later Raiders sequence in which Indy digs through the night for the Ark. The treasure itself is unique and rewarding. Rather than gold, it’s a more valuable natural resource, the same sort that would later attract Dominic Greene...

Whiplash is a great discovery for both Peter Graves fans and ITC fans. Despite the American genre and the Australian setting, it feels very much like the ITC shows that we know and love from later in the Sixties, dabbling in all sorts of genres, but generally delivering quality entertainment in a fairly unique form. Most episodes seem to end with a group of people cheering, and Graves grinning what could either be deemed a satisfied grin or a self-satisfied smirk. If that sort of ending holds any appeal to you (personally, I’d watch anything Graves smirked in), you’ll probably find yourself grinning as well.

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