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Monday, September 14, 2015

F TROOP Fridays: "Scourge of the West" (1965)

F TROOP Fridays: Number 11

F TROOP: "Scourge of the West" (1965 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Season One, Episode One: Original Air Date September 14, 1965.  Starring Forrest Tucker as Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke, Larry Storch as Corporal Randolph Agarn, Ken Berry as Captain Wilton Parmenter, Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane, Frank deKova as Chief Wild Eagle, Edward Everett Horton as Roaring Chicken, James Hampton as Bugler Dobbs, Joe Brooks as Private Vanderbilt, Henry Brandon as the Shug Chief, Jay Sheffield as Lt. Hawkes, Louie Elias as Private Franklin and William Conrad as The Narrator.  Directed by Charles Rondeau.  Written by Ed James, Seaman Jacobs and Jim Barnett.

Happy 50th Birthday to F TROOP and to its debut episode, Scourge of the West!  Yeah, it's Monday, but hey, that's the day that the Fiftieth Anniversary of this pilot falls on.  Sorry to encroach on your day, MAVERICK.  Won't happen again, pinky swear.

In the "closing months of the War Between the States" the sonorious tones of William Conrad (CANNON himself!) are heard filling us in on the latest crisis to affect "a certain Union general" as he sits in his quarters near Appomattox, Virginia:

"Where's my laundry???"

Private Wilton Parmenter (Berry), Quartermaster Corps, the last and least of a proud Philadelphia family of career soldiers, is dispatched to fetch it.  While he may not look like much of a soldier....

Conrad informs us that he's been up to the "awesome responsibility" of "coming through with the underwear" numerous times.  This time, though, fate takes a hand, and Private Parmenter runs smack into an excess of pollen filling the air.  It triggers the usual involuntary response from the Private as he rides past a group of officers: they hear the sneeze loud and clear.

"You heard him, men!  CHARGE!!!!"  Well, loud, anyway.  The resulting offensive catches the Confederates completely by surprise, and within a matter of days, decisive victory is assured for the Union forces.  Wilton Parmenter has finally found his niche among the Majors, Colonels and Generals that make up his next of kin, and the newly nicknamed "Scourge of Appomattox" finds himself promoted to Captain, given a medal of honor.......

.....and a Purple Heart, which incidentally, not only made Captain Parmenter the first soldier to ever receive one, but the only recipient before 1917.  "The only soldier in history to get a medal for getting a medal."

While the hero is still recovering from his fresh wound, his superiors debate a proper assignment.  Midwestern Fort Courage is suggested.  "Sir, they've gone through three commanding officers in the past 18 months!  Two desertions and a nervous breakdown!"  Sounds daunting, but hey, how much more so can it be than coming through with Grant's starchless underwear?  Parmenter just might be the stabilizing influence the outpost needs, and he is given his new assignment: command of F Troop.

Wilton arrives at Fort Courage to much ceremony, and his very first cannon salute, to be set off by Bugler Dobbs (Hampton).  That is, if he can keep the fuse from burning out.  With the Private failing this simple exercise, the Corporal goes over to give the cannon a little nudge--well, more, accurately, he kicks the hell out of it.

And it does fire:

Needless to say, this won't be the last time that a detail will be assigned to rebuild the lookout tower.

After this inauspicious introduction, Bugler Dobbs (Hampton) displays his bugling talents the following morning, and they're on par with his cannon operation.  The new Captain is in his quarters when the two non-Coms we saw earlier, Sergeant O'Rourke (Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Storch) report for duty, informing the new Captain that F Troop is ready for his initial inspection.

But Parmenter isn't.  He requires the Sarge's assistance with his gun belt, and the newly minted "Scourge of the West" wants to hang up the picture of his proud family---and to look up reveille in his Army Manual.  After Agarn is sent outside to call the troop to attention, and a couple more pratfalls (understatement of the episode from Wilton: "I fall down a lot.") it's time for Wilton to take command with some inspiring words.

"Men, you're in the Army now!"

After that rousing nugget of leadership, Captain Parmenter astutely notices that reveille takes place at 10 A.M. and asks the Sergeant why, for it was at 7 A.M. when he was in Quartermasters back East.  O'Rourke continues to be helpful while the inexperienced commander adapts.  "The Captain is forgetting--there's a three hour time difference."

That explanation out of the way, Parmenter's inspection reveals a number of imperfections: Dobbs is missing a button ("keep looking, it's bound to be around someplace"), Duddleson (Ivan Bell) has gravy stains, and Swenson requires Agarn's very first attention getter.

Brace yourself!

Shouldn't he get two for flinching, Corporal?  Interesting notes: Duffy is nowhere to be found, Vanderbilt is unnamed (and not demonstrably blind yet) and while he and Duddleson will both return as part of the regular cast, neither has a speaking part in Scourge of the West.

Wrangler Jane (Patterson) rides through announcing mail call, which brings the inspection to an abrupt end.  Janey had that kind of effect on a lot of us teenage boys who were watching.

Miss Jane Angelica Thrift takes an immediate shine to the new Captain, betting a bucket of buzzards that they'll "be seeing something of each other."  That'll have to wait, though, as the Captain's very first letter informs him of an immediate inspection by Second Lieutenant Hawks of the I.G.'s office.  "I just got here yesterday!"  Assuring their CO one last time, the NCO's appoint the Bugler to be Parmenter's orderly while they set out to make everything "as slick as a greasy whistle" for the visit from the brass.

With their new Captain seen to his quarters by Dobbs, O'Rourke and Agarn are finally able to give us their unfiltered views.  If they were apprehensive about having a member of the esteemed Parmenter family as commander--and it sounded like they were, initially--those fears have been safely put to rest.  "I tell ya, Sarge, he's the pigeon that we always dreamed of!"

The Sergeant is in no mood for celebrating, though, and neither is his aide-de-camp.  They've been bad, bad boys: F Troop draws rations and pay allotments for 30 men, yet only 17 are actually stationed at Fort Courage.  Also, they reported knocking off two tribes in two weeks.

"If that Lieutenant finds out just how peaceful it is around here, there'll be no more Fort Courage!"  Nagging Question # 1: Wouldn't an uneventful stay for the I.G. be easily explainable by the fact that two tribes were supposedly wiped out recently?  Who would be left to attack, and if anyone was, wouldn't they be wary of doing so?

Never mind.  Suffice to say that the pending visit from the Inspector General is not desired, and when we reach their NCO Club (Privates Keep Out- Officers too), we find out a few more reasons why.  This is one impressive array of loot.  Two hundred genuine Hekawi war bonnets, two barrels of perfumed war paint, arrows, bows, quivers, shields, tomahawks....but one problem, only half a case of whiskey for their saloon.  Business partner Chief Wild Eagle (deKova) of the "bloodthirsty" Hekawis reported to Agarn that the still is busted.

Crafty O'Rourke--he was the man responsible for getting rid of two Captains and a Major, we learn--reasons that they ought to be able to handle one nosy Second Lieutenant.  They head up to the Hekawi camp to kill two birds with one stone: discuss the still, and secure an opponent to stage a phony offensive that the troopers (yes, even F Troopers) can easily fend off for the benefit of the I.G.

The Chief has a bone to pick before they get down to business, though.  He wants to address the "nasty rumor" that the natives aren't supposed to drink alcohol, a "nasty rumor" spread by his "blue-nose redskin" sister in law, Sparkling Water.  After Wild Eagle laughs at his own joke for the first (but again, not the last) time, O'Rourke gets to the point, suggesting that the cannon will be fired as a signal to commence the raid.

"Attack you?  You honorary Hekawi!"  Wild Eagle isn't too keen on the idea, until he realizes that a shutdown of O'Rourke Enterprises would mean the Hekawi go back to hunting, fishing--and weaving their own blankets.  "We fight!"  But first, the War Dance has to take place.  Too bad the "bloodthirsty Hekawi" have been so peaceful for so long that no one remembers how to do a War Dance.  Not even ancient medicine man Roaring Chicken (Horton).  "Very much like Rain Dance, only drier."  Well, it has been 42 years since he saw one.

42 years ago last August, to be exact.  So, August 1822?

Corporal Agarn seems to have more knowledge than anyone, so he leads the dance.  Kinda nimble on his feet, actually:

Next, we'll learn the Mashed Potato!

Unfortunately, they've got company: warriors from the Shug tribe--and O'Rourke doesn't have a treaty with them.  The Shug leader doesn't want to attack the Hekawi, even with two palefaces in uniform there.  Instead, they'll follow them back to the Fort--which the Shugs plan to ambush for real in the morning.

Well, you got your attack now, Sarge!

Top billed Forrest Tucker was the extroverted leader of the cast offscreen as well, and he wisely told everyone to "think Bilko" while the pilot was in production.  For his part, Tucker brings a bit of that insincere flattery to the O'Rourke role, but tones down the blatantly bogus air around it ever so slightly.  Also, the 6'5" Tucker is much more physically imposing than the owlish Silvers, so he is less animated when threatening to transfer everyone to "a fighting outfit" later--he correctly surmises that his rank and physical stature provides all the menace needed.  Even at this early stage, it's easy to see why Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke became the veteran actor's signature role.

Lieutenant Hawkes (Sheffield) arrives, and immediately notices the discrepancy between the rations and pay allotments (thirty men) and those assembled--seventeen, including Private Franklin (Elias) who has sentry duty, which apparently hasn't been assigned to Vanderbilt yet.  That must have been a Parmenter idea.  Oh, and by the way, since firing the cannon is the agreed-upon attack signal, I don't think I'd want to be in Franklin's boots.....

Anyway, the other thirteen men are "Indian scouts out on patrol" according to O'Rourke and Agarn.  Hawkes strangely accepts this explanation.  Then again, the Lieutenant mainly seems interested in inspecting Wrangler Jane instead of the Fort.

Pretty pervy look there, Lieutenant!  She doesn't return the interest, but verbalizing that to him will have to wait, since a flaming arrow comes flying past them, landing on the front door of the Captain's quarters.

While the ineptitude of the bugler and the cannon crew predated the Captain's arrival, Franklin's sentry duty is notably more accurate than Vanderbilt's would be in later installments.  The lookout correctly identifies the source as Indians instead of turkeys.  "The ferocious Hekawis are about to a-tack!"

Nagging Question # 2: thirteen scouts supposedly employed, and not a single one could tell you about a pending attack?  Gonna be awfully hard to keep those guys on the payroll, Sarge!

O'Rourke and Agarn are dismayed at the error by their business partners ("Nobody fired the cannon!") but nevertheless put the plan in motion, dutifully firing over the heads of the bloodthirsty "attackers".

However, Wrangler Jane is primed for action, darting to the parapets to join the seventeen F Troopers. Miss Thrift immediately shows us she's an ace with the pistol, knocking three Shugs off their horses and alarming O'Rourke, who wonders what he'll tell the Chief about the casualties.  In addition to performing such heroics while Annie Oakley was just barely out of diapers, Janey is also the first to recognize the invaders as the Shugs.  O'Rourke and Agarn were just a little late in not recognizing their business partners, despite a good clue:

"We're for real!  IT'S THE SHUGS!"  Meanwhile, the Captain is battling a couple of Shugs who scaled the wall near his quarters, and the Scourge of the West (accidentally) lives up to the reputation that has preceded him.  One is impaled while the Captain is trying to control his swinging saber, and while he attempts to get his weapon unstuck from the first, Parmenter accidentally stabs the second warrior as he finally frees the sword.  It may not look pretty, but hey, whatever works, works, right?

Once the Captain finally stumbles up on the parapet, he continues this impressive debut with a most unconventional weapon--a ladder.  A flaming arrow lands in the lookout tower, but miraculously does not cause this notoriously wobbly structure to fall.  However, it is still burning, and Parmenter grabs the ladder in an attempt to reach it.  And as has been the case with virtually every object he's encountered, he struggles to control it, ending up tumbling over the edge with it.....

.....at the precise moment that three Shug warriors attempt to scale the front wall.  When Sergeant O'Rourke warns Parmenter by name, we quickly learn that the Parmenter name carries a lot of weight with the Shug Chief.

"Scourge of the West!  RUN!"  And retreat the Shugs do, with the three clocked by the ladder bringing up the rear.

In the coda, Sergeant O'Rourke has added some new loot, "trophies of the Shug War".  Well, at least these souvenirs are genuine.  Meanwhile, the Captain gets the statistics, indicating it was a rout:  24 Shug casualties, none for F Troop.  Janey alone was responsible for 17 of the casualties, and we saw the Captain notch two inside the Fort, leaving five for his underlings.  Which was oh, roughly five more than we would see from the Troopers during the remaining sixty-four episodes.

It's 5 PM, so it's time for retreat, which apparently isn't affected by that time difference that O'Rourke brought up earlier.  Only one problem: you fire the cannon during retreat, and there's that little matter of the Hekawis still awaiting that signal to begin their offensive.  Unfortunately, O'Rourke and Agarn are unable to stop this little military tradition.

The second attack of the day commences, and in a further setback for business, O'Rourke Enterprises suffers some heavy inventory losses from that same cannonball.  Well, hey, on this one day, at least the lookout tower durably remains standing in front of the brass.


The Hekawis would prove to be incredibly prescient over the course of the show's run, anticipating the rise of rock and roll and the need for a gentleman's club nearly a century before either became mainstream.  We learn here it started centuries before, since they invented the peace pipe.


The fake Hekawi attack probably applies, and for sure, shooting over the heads of the Shugs intentionally fits the bill as well, so two.


Janey refers to an "injun" attack, and of course Wild Eagle uses "redskin" once as well, but this time the visiting officer isn't a war Hawke for once.  And really, how un-PC can that "redskin" be if her nose is blue?


Hits the ground running with a superb pilot, establishing the situation very quickly, with a few of the usual awkward “introductory” speeches. They aren't too much of a distraction from the numerous belly laughs.  Scourge of the West doesn't quite have all the pieces in place yet, but Tucker, Storch, Berry, Patterson and deKova are all immediately comfortable in their respective roles, and the script is full of hilarious one-liners.  (***1/2 out of four)

F TROOP currently airs on Me-TV for a full hour each Saturday morning at 5 AM ET/4 AM CT and on Sunday mornings at 7 AM ET/6 AM CT.

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