Promotional image for The Cowboys. David Dortort Archives, Autry Library, Autry National Center; T2004-118-4
Promotional image for The Cowboys. David Dortort Archives, Autry Library, Autry National Center; T2004-118-4

The Cowboys and TV Censorship in the Early 1970s

Part of a Series: Exploring the David Dortort Archives
At the beginning of each month, Project Archivist Mallory Furnier explores the donated papers of novelist, screenwriter, and producer David Dortort. Click here for other entries in the series.

The David Dortort Archives includes production documents for many of the television projects he worked on. These materials include scripts, main title billings, shooting schedules, budgets, cast lists, and related production correspondence. The production documents for the television series The Cowboys include reviews of shooting scripts from the American Broadcasting Company’s Department of Broadcast Standards and Practices. These documents, which requested specific script modifications to individual episodes, provide insight into censorship in network television in the early 1970s.

The Cowboys began life as a book by William Dale Jennings, which was then adapted into a 1972 film. Starring John Wayne, the film followed the journey of Wayne’s rancher character, Wil Andersen, and the group of local schoolboys he hired to help with his cattle drive. David Dortort produced an adaptation of the movie into a TV series that was broadcast on ABC in 1974. The TV series presented original stories based on the characters and general scenario introduced in the film version. Adolfo “A” Martinez, Robert Carradine, Sean Kelly, and Clay O’Brien reprised their film roles for the TV series.

ABC’s Department of Broadcast Standards and Practices requested a variety of script changes. Shooting script review notes from January 10, 1974, requested the deletion of three damns from the dialogue in the first draft of the episode “Amigo’s Friend,” and also rejected the use of the term greaser.

In some cases, the language of violence was a concern. The reviewer for “Requiem for a Lost Son” (formerly titled “The Rawhiders”) suggested that the word kill be replaced with “do away with” or “take care of” as “softer” phrases.

Visual depictions of violent acts were also flagged for modification. The hanging of a character in the episode “The Accused” was cause for concern. The December 14, 1973, review demanded “caution, in order to avoid possible imitation of this act, the camera must not dwell on Obrego ‘fashioning a noose’ in this sequence.” It was also noted that “we must see the hanging figure ONLY from the waist down and please eliminate any swaying or dangling effect in this sequence.”

“Requiem for a Lost Son” was heavily critiqued for violence. A fight sequence from the episode “must not be too graphic or extended … delete the action of the Indian ‘digging his fingers into Cimarron’s eyes.’” When the script called for Cimarron to be knocked unconscious after being hit with a club, the review suggested he go unconscious after falling over a bucket instead. Later in the script, two separate instances of characters holding knives to another character’s throat were also given the ax. In the second instance, the reviewer wrote that “the implied threat of bodily harm is strong enough to carry this sequence.” Finally, the “amount of gunfire” in a sequence was deemed “too extended” and needing curtailing.

The shooting script reviews were concerned with not only violence and language but also the treatment of animal performers. “The Accused” review reminded writers that “all animal action in this episode is subject to A.H.A. [American Humane Association] approval.” A script review for the episode “Night of the Kiowas” pointed out specific concerns regarding the use of animal performers. For that episode, supervision was required for a stampeding herd and bucking action scenes.

The scripts were approved for filming once the necessary modifications were made. Although the deletion of particular dialogue and scenes of violence were specific to the standards of ABC in the early 1970s, they do prompt broader questions about what content is appropriate or inappropriate for network television viewers. What does TV censorship say about the culture of the time period in which a work is produced? How has television censorship and regulation changed over time? And if these scripts were reviewed today, what different or similar concerns would networks and viewers have?

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About the author

MALLORY FURNIER is Special Projects Archivist at the Libraries and Archives of the Autry National Center. When not arranging, describing, and preserving remnants of the past she enjoys ruminating about early film fandom and censorship, consumerism, and genealogy.