I didn’t like Westerns for much of my life. They dominated American popular culture for decades, then fizzled out as a genre just in time for my formative years. But a dozen or so years ago I suddenly had a hankering to watch classic Western films, a desire I didn’t fight. Then maybe six or seven years later, the same thing happened with Westerns of the small screen.
My favorite Western series and television drama is Gunsmoke, and I’ll do a tribute to that show at some point. But the single greatest TV episode I’ve ever seen – from any series – was The Jeremy Dow Story, a Wagon Train episode which first aired on December 28, 1960. It starred none other than Leslie Neilsen. Mr. Nielsen is known by people my age and younger primarily for his slapstick comic role in the Police Academy movies. But The Jeremy Dow Story couldn’t be more serious.
The better TV Westerns from that era usually included a moral lesson or theme. In The Jeremy Dow Story, the theme was redemption and the willingness of one man to pay the ultimate price in pursuit of it. The symbolism at the end shatters me every time I watch it.
I’m going to summarize the story here, so feel free to by-pass the rest of the text and skip ahead to the video link at the bottom if you would like to watch the episode without knowing the plot in advance.
The people from Jeremy Dow’s home town thought he died a hero while rushing into a burning school to save the children inside of it. A statue in his honor stands at the center of that town. But Mr. Dow didn’t actually run into the flames or save any children. In fact, he was still alive. In utter shame over his cowardice in the face of and in contradiction to the honors being heaped on his memory, he snuck out of town, leaving his wife and infant son behind, and became an alcoholic and a drifter. Fast forward a few years and he joins up with the wagon train at the center of the series. He discovers his wife and son are also with the wagon train and befriends the boy without letting on about his identity in addition to eventually revealing himself to his wife.
As the show progresses and reaches a climax, his son is held hostage by a group of Indians with a grievance against the wagon train troop. They agree to release the boy only in exchange for an adult who would be burned at the stake after the trade is made. Jeremy Dow (Leslie Neilsen) volunteers to give up his own life to save his son. He is given a second opportunity to go into the flames to save a child and rises to the challenge this time. The music and visual symbolism at the end are stunning.
I had previously had the entire episode embedded here, but thaTo watch The Jeremy Dow Story in it’s entirety, please click here.