The High Chaparral is not a silly theme
park in the south of Sweden with a cowboy theme, but that location would
hardly be named High Chaparral had it not been for a TV show in the late
sixties with the same name. The title theme song still gives thrills of joy
running down my spine as I hear it. The High Chaparral kicked Bonanza's ass,
we youngsters born in the early sixties thought, as we stayed up late and
watched the adventures of Big John, Buck and Manolito in Arizona in
Bonanza may have become the most classic TV
show in this genre, but it has not aged well compared to the not so long lived
Chaparral. Yes, chaparral is the name of a cactus that grows in Arizona, the
classic western cactus.
Fantastic theme song
So why was it so good? Well, to begin with we
were greeted with a great theme song every night written by David Rose. He had
also been responsible for the Bonanza theme but here he had managed to create
a pulsating melody with epic Western feel that built up the excitement right
away as we enjoyed the almost comic book-like stills that we could see behind
the credits in every episode's beginning. As a theme it belongs to the
all time greats along with the music we got in police shows like Cannon,
Mission Impossible, Streets Of San Francisco, Kojak, The Saint and Jason King.
And the theme song is important. I recall how as an eight-year-old kid I had
just got my first Phillips tape recorder and how I sat in front of the TV and
recorded all these themes. I then used these for added excitement with my
brother when we pretended that we were action heroes. In fact, I did locate
one of these old tapes not long ago and the nostalgia I felt when I played it
was great. And sure enough, there was the theme to The High Chaparral. Ta ta,
tatata, ta ta...
When this show was being made the genre
experienced a golden age, but many shows were touched up. The image of the
cowboy was not quite true and hardly ever shown in these shows. In the
recently produced show Deadwood the real west was captured much more as it
was, certainly more so than back in the sixties. At that time the stars should
be seen as righteous heroes, kind and rather predictable.
The High Chaparral changed all this when it
premiered in 1967. The characters were not hard to like but they certainly had
flaws and were not one-dimensional. The environment felt real. The slight tone
of brown that was ever present enhanced the feeling that it was hotter than
hell in that desert land and that it was tough to conquer it. The contrast to
Bonanza is huge where they recorded most scenes in studio settings and you
could both see and hear it. High Chaparral was for real. We were transported
into the wild west for sure. It was a tough show but it also had a depth with
the storylines that the other shows rarely dared to touch.
The core of the story naturally involved the
Cannon family, with the patriarch John Cannon in charge. He bought this ranch
called The High Chaparral to raise cattle and to build a life for his family.
This was hard work in this desert land and the ever looming presence of
apaches and also the fact that Mexico was close by meant that the hardships
were likely to be a constant factor for some time to come. The major problem
seemed to be his enemy across the border, Don Sebastian Montoya, whose
daughter Victoria (Linda Cristal) he was forced to marry to save his ranch
after his wife had been killed by Apaches in the beginning of the series.
There were many human conflicts in many of the
episodes in the Cannon family, but we soon learned to like them and perhaps
especially the independent and struggling Victoria. From his first marriage,
John had a son, Billy Blue. A bit of a sissy but soon popular among the girls
that watched the show. John's brother Buck, in contrast, was the cool one. A
tough guy with with an avid interest in letting off some steam every now and
again in the city. Always a fun loving guy, he had iron in his fists if he had
to resort to violence.
The greatest idol of them all was Manolito,
Victoria's brother. A charmer at heart and a bit of a troublemaker in his own
right, he was still not as crooked as his father and had rebelled in his own
way. This was yet another conflict for us to enjoy as father and son often
tried to outsmart one another.
Big John was played by a veteran with a
Swedish ringing name, Leif Erickson (1911-1986). Sure enough he had his roots
in Sweden but he was born William Anderson in San Francisco. His name was
changed by a bandleader for a group that he sang with back in 1929. Yes, he
had plans originally to pursue a career in that field. He used to pronounce
Leif as "Life".
Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994) had his moment in
the sun as Buck but he had a long career in film behind him when he was
offered to play the part. Sadly, as the show was cancelled in 1971 he never
saw great success again and was relegated to b-movies such as "Toolbox
Mark Slade (born 1939) played Blue but was out
of the show by the time they filmed the last season. Today he is an actor and
a painter and when he acts it seems to be in theater mostly.
Henry Darrow (born 1933) almost missed out on
his call to play Manolito, a part he surely was born for. He had, in fact,
recently changed his name from Enrique Delgado to avoid being typecast as a
Latino and the producers had a hard time locating him. They did find him
eventually, but it was a last minute thing. He was lucky, and so were we, and
he went on to be famous. Manolito actually means "The little hand" in Spanish.
He was so popular here that he toured the dancehalls through Sweden. After
High Chaparral we have seen him in many shows, not least in Zorro.
Sadly, High Chaparral does not exist on DVD
and only the first two episodes have ever seen a release here on video but
have been out of print now for many years. One of our commercial channels did
air the show a few years ago and it was a pleasure to once again see this
classic show. My video collection grew fast, if you know what I mean.
Anders Tengner and I belong to the same
generation and our memories of The High Chaparral are very similar and only
positive. I really loved this show, from the fantastic theme song to the dry
desert land and the entire cast.
When I was a kid there were a bunch of kids in
my neck of the woods that used to hang out all the time. We were always
outside and in the summer we played football and badminton and with the snow
came hockey and other winter activities. As kids do, we also re-enacted TV
shows and movies. War-like activities were not uncommon and with easy access
to toy replicas of guns, hand grenades, bows, swords, shields, Indian
feathers, and the like, it wasn't hard to get going. I have clear
memories of a whole bunch of us acting out scenes from The High Chaparral. We
used to pretend that the Indians were after our scalps.
Buck was my hero
I enjoyed everybody's work in the show, down
to the last ranch worker. But Buck was my hero. He was as cool as you can get
I thought, with the coolest clothing, the coolest hat and he also had humor.
I grew up without a male role model in the house and when kids don't have a
father around I'm pretty sure they pick out other surrogates. Perhaps Buck was
one of mine (God forbid!).
One of the strengths in the show lay in the
rich personalities on display. They had credibility. Here was a tough crowd
hell bent on building a life from nothing out there under the hot sun in
Arizona and with death lurking in the shadows of every rock. This hard life
also reflected in their actions and they all had moments when they couldn't
quite take it. But this only added to the drama and it made the show all the
more interesting to watch. They were a rugged bunch and in contrast to today's
shows, where many parts are played by models (it would seem) it was easy to
believe that they were real. But in High Chaparral our heroes were more like
ordinary people. John and Buck had seen better days, they struggled in the
heat and it all looked like the real thing. Victoria had to struggle to get
some order into the house and some of the humor in the earlier shows certainly
came from her situation and how she handled these cowboys. Initially, upon her
arrival at the ranch, there were little traces of civilization there, but not
a lot. She had to fight for her vision and fight she did. Her victories were a
joy to see and the respect she quickly gained because of her sweet but strong
personality. The gang quickly learned to pay her the respect she was due as
the lady of the house and she won that battle herself. She taught them
manners, if they lacked them, and that was great fun to see.
Talented producer hired only the best
The creator of the show, David Dortort,
actually test filmed Linda on location as they shot the very first episode. We
don't know if John Cannon's first wife got that arrow on short notice or if
she was to die early in any case, but Linda got the part very quickly. The
actress that portrayed Annalee was a veteran called Joan Caulfield (1922-1991)
with a long career in cinema. But she was 55 and could not compete with the
David Dortort also insisted that they should
hire real Apaches for the show. This was ideal since they were on location in
their old land to begin with, so many Apaches got jobs in the show as they
went into production. This was a new way of doing things in the business and
very commendable. The Apache chief Cochise was portrayed by his grandson Nino
Cochise, then 87 (also a relative to the famous Geronimo). He had only one leg
and they had to help him get up on that horse, but never did a TV show have a
more authentic Indian leader than this. Nino died at 110 in 1984 and is buried
in the Old Tucson cemetery in Arizona.
TV 1 had, for many years, a top dog (can't
recall his name) that loved Westerns. That's probably why we could see so many
Western movies on the channel and he was probably responsible for getting The
High Chaparral on the air as well. And the show was incredibly popular,
there's no doubt about that. The way I remember it, everybody watched it in my
world. My grandmother loved it, neighbors that were football players, car
salesmen, bank managers, all saw it. And all the kids. And we all thought it
was the best show ever.
But somewhere something went wrong and
protests came from do-gooders without brains and the media picked up on this.
The violence and the drinking in the show was discussed and surely the kids
had to be protected. Sadly, these people won and the show was cancelled here
after the first season. I recall how upset we were that our favourite show on
Tuesdays was suddenly gone. The same arguments that were successful in
removing The High Chaparral from the air soon managed to remove all
war-related toys from the toyshops as well. The kids of course just used
hockey clubs as rifles for their games instead. You can't change kids and
Lill-Babs and Manolito
How beloved this show really was though, was
proven when Tore Skogman wrote the song "Manolito" for Lill-Babs, that went on
to be a huge hit in Sweden. On the back of this success, Henry Darrow flew to
Sweden to tour the dancehalls and it was Manolito-mania all over the country.
In the end, Manolito is the character that the people remember the most from
this show. His ever present laugh a trademark in itself. He laughed at his
enemies as well, but always outwitted them. Psychological warfare.
For a brief period, a market also opened up
for comics and books and these are now pretty hard to come by and fairly
expensive to get if you spot them. And this goes for the film cards as well.
We seem to recall an ice cream that was on sale as well. The fact that this
show only aired for a brief period here makes the fact that it is so well
remembered by people who watched TV back then all the more important. The fact
that more people are aware of Bonanza these days is a scandal, but for some
reason that show has been aired for decades and The High Chaparral never was.
The fact that Swedish television never aired the show again is a cultural
scandal if you ask me. Perhaps somebody out of my generation will fix this
error some day. One can always dream. Some 15 years ago (or so), Super Channel
did air the show so we did get to see it from abroad. It was great to finally
be able to see the show again. A friend visited me years ago and as we watched
the pilot episode he suddenly said "I recall that I ate a hamburger when I saw
this". Case closed.