Partial cast of The Big Valley. From left to right:
Lee Majors, Barbara Stanwyck, Linda Evans,
and Charles Briles, who played the youngest son, Eugene.
Tonight we are watching The Big Valley, "Explosion, Part I." This show originally aired in 1967 and focuses on a subject that I actually know a little bit about--wildfire and wildfire firefighting in the Old West. This story has a few minor subplots, though, most involving women!
The show begins with two men sitting by a campfire reading the women's undergarments page from a catalog, which is apparently the cowboy version of Playboy. The men are not outlaws, but they're not good guys, either. One mentions that the sheriff of Sacramento tossed him out of town, so they decide to go to Stockton to check out the women. They douse the fire, but not carefully, then drop the page from the catalog, which blows into the fire pit and ignites from the smoldering ashes.
The men ride off into the forest, unaware that they have just started one of the worst natural disasters the Barkley's have ever faced. Well, this and the "Earthquake!" episode from 1965 when Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) is trapped beneath the church with a pregnant Native American woman and a man suffering from alcoholism who her son, Nick, recently fired.
We leave the sparking camp fire and arrive in Stockton where second son Nick, played by the devilishly-dimpled Peter Breck, is showing his brothers the birthday gift he chose for their mother, Victoria. It's a painting by one of the most famous Western artists, Charles Russell. As they admire the painting, Silas (Napoleon Whiting, a talented man who also appeared in Giant, Farewell my Lovely and Skin Game), the Barkley's house servant, arrives with a calender with a copy of the same Russell picture. Heath comments that the painting is worthless, Jarrod points out that they have the original, and the painting makes it more valuable. He tells Nick to wrap it back up, and Nick tells Silas to wrap it up.
Suddenly, a buggy pulls up with a beautiful woman and the "Marquis" (Carl Esmond). Nick decides he is going to flirt with the Marquis' daughter (Leticia Roman) while Jarrod and Heath make bets on his potential success. Nick asks the daughter about the painting he chose for his mother and she pretends she cannot hear him, then her father steps out of the store and she tells her father that Nick is attempting to bring culture to Stockton. The Marquis makes a comment that this will be an impossible task.
The Barkley boys enter the local tavern where they learn about the wildfire. It is between Granite City and gold mines owned by the Barkley's and the Marquis. The Marquis insists they must protect the mines and the Barkley's insist the focus should be on the homes in Granite City. The Marquis proposes that both the city and the mines can be saved using nitroglycerin to build a fire break, a line where everything is burned, which will stop the fire since the fire will have nothing else to burn. This makes perfect sense, and yet, in the background we hear ominous music: dun dun dun! The Marquis says he has already spoken to Mr. Carter (played by veteran actor Stewart Erwin who died shortly after this show was completed), the best nitro man in the county, about the task. Carter will be paid $2000. Two young brothers agree to assist.
While researching the cost of cowboy boots in this time period, I discovered that $20 was the equivalent to $300 in contemporary dollars. Therefore, $2000 would be equal to $30,000. that's a lot of money for a nitro drop. While it's possible that the gold mines were pulling in massive amounts of money, if the timber bracing the outer entrance to the mines burned, and the timber used in making flumes, they would have a hard time replacing that timber after a forest fire, but it would not be impossible. The timbers inside the mine would likely stay intact. Would it be worth $30,000? To save Granite City, perhaps, but not to save the mines. The Barkley's are attempting to portray the Marquis as selfish, but the money issue seems to imply the Marquis is more concerned with the city than the mine. (Either that, or the writers used faulty logic.)
Now for the nitro. Referred to as "blasting oil," it was believed to be so hypersensitive "it would detonate if a man so much as spoke harshly in its presence" according to Robert Wallace's The Miners. Pure nitroglycerin was used experimentally in mining, and more often in rock quarries, but after awhile there were so many accidents that very few men were willing to take the risk. (Alfred Nobel changed this by mixing nitroglycerin with chalk, inventing dynamite.)
Mr. Carter is willing to take risk his life with the nitroglycerin. Why? He needs the money. He has fallen in love with a beautiful dance hall girl, Gail Miller (actress Arlene Golonka, who also appeared in the Clint Eastwood film Hang 'Em High). Jarrod Barkley (Richard Long), the oldest Barkley boy, watches Carter say goodbye to Gail. Carter climbs into the wagon, then warns a woman--Bridget Wells, played by Judy Carne--to stay away! Doesn't she know nitroglycerin is dangerous? She does, but Carter's salvation is more important than her life. She gives him a Bible.
Carter and the two brothers head up the mountain road with their deadly cargo. A rattlesnake crosses the road and spooks the horses. Moments later, there is an explosion. The curtains blow in the Marquis' breakfast nook where his daughter is serving him tea, the men in the bar run for the door, and Carter's girlfriend puts her hands over her face, and screams, screams, screams!
The footage of the explosion on the mountain was spectacular. Lots of smoke pouring over a rocky outcrop.
Back in the bar, Toby, the town drunk begs some whiskey from the Barkley boys. The Marquis announces an additional 10 gallons of nitro will be delivered in the morning by train. Then a farmer rushes into the bar. "We got trouble boys!" he announces. He's just lost his home, barn, farm, "everything!" He's surprisingly calm for a man who has lost...everything! But he tells everyone in the bar that the fire has moved and is now headed for Stockton. The men all run from the bar to pack their belongings and evacuate--everyone but the Barkley boys. They discuss the nitro, the mountain, the chances, then toast the Barkley luck. That's right, folks, them Barkley boys are takin' the nitro to the fire!
The Barkley boys meet Silas outside the bar and warn him not to tell mother Victoria, or little sister Audra (Linda Evans.) "I don't like it! I don't like it! I don't like it!" Silas proclaims. "He doesn't like it," Nick says as Silas drives the buggy out of town.
The men split up--Heath (The Six Million Dollar Man. Oops! I mean, Lee Majors) to talk the undertaker out of his new hearse with its fancy shocks--perfect to carry the nitro; Nick, to say goodbye to the Marquis' daughter; and Jarrod, to make sure their financial matters are in order in case, well, you know. (Insert dramatic sigh here.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Victoria and Audra are preparing for her birthday party. Silas arrives. She asks for the birthday gift and Silas hands her the Charles Russell calendar. "Well, she sure will be surprised," Audra says with a skeptical tone. Silas tells the women about the fire. Victoria decides to take emergency supplies to town and Audra heads for the orphanage, of course. Victoria tells her to bring the children back to the ranch.
Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley.
When she enters the orphanage, Audra sees an adorable, big-eyed child with blond pigtails. Her name is Mary. (Mary is played by Eileen Barrel. You will recognize Eileen from another 1968 Big Valley episode, "A Flock of Trouble," the child whose uncle loses a flock of sheep to Nick Barkley in a card game.) Audra tells the priest to gather the orphans and take them to the Barkley ranch.
Now, the story gets interesting as each brother encounters...a woman! First, Carter's fiance arrives at Jarrod's office. She wants the money promised to Carter, who you'll recall was blown up on the mountain. The bank has refused to pay her Carter's $2000. She tries to convince Jarrod to lie, to tell the bank that Carter told him he wanted her to have the money. Jarrod refuses to lie, so she throws herself at him, offering her body in exchange for his soul! Of course, Jarrod says no, so she angrily storms out of his office, but it is clear we have not seen the last of Ms. Gail Miller!
The two bad men who unknowingly started the fire enter Stockton, their hormones raging after viewing the corsets in the newspaper. They grab the first woman they see and tear her blouse off. It is Bridget Wells (Judy Carne), the woman Mr. Carter warned away from the wagon. Heath leaves the funeral home in time to rescue Bridget Wells from the two bad men, but she turns on Heath, too, then runs away. Heath has surprisingly bad luck with women!
Nick, at the home of the Marquis, is warmly welcomed by the Marquis's daughter, who is exposing her ample bosom in a lovely gown. She flirts with Nick while she tells him of her family's past and their great wealth, which was stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte. She asks Nick to take the nitro up the mountain. Suddenly, Nick realizes she is only trying to convince him to take the nitro. In his usual fashion, Nick overreacts, making cruel insinuations to The Marquis, who has just entered the room, and his daughter. Nick picks up a champagne bottle and throws it into the fireplace. He storms from the house. The daughter confronts the Marquis, pointing out that Nick is far more cultured than they are. "Who has more dignity now, Nick Barkley, or you?" she asks...and the Marquis slaps her! She challenges him once more, and he slaps her again!
People tend to be a bit slap-happy on The Big Valley. In the 1968 episode "The Long Ride," Audra is stunned speechless after witnessing a triple murder. Her mother, Victoria, slaps her repeatedly, telling her to "snap out of it!" In another 1968 episode, "The Emperor of Rice," the evil wife of a family friend hypnotizes Victoria in an attempt to take over the Barkley ranch. When Victoria appears to be dying, the evil wife slaps Victoria repeatedly across the face to "wake her up," then attempts to hypnotize her again. Apparently, slapping was an accepted psychological treatment in the Old West. Who knew?
And this is where we leave the Barkley's dear readers, with a raging wildfire, stranded orphans, and 10 gallons of nitro arriving on the morning train.
There's a wildfire raging through the nearby forests headed straight for Stockton. The fire was started by a campfire. Three men have already died trying to use nitroglycerin to create a fire line to stop the fire. Ten more gallons of nitroglycerin is scheduled to arrive on the morning train.
The fire has crowned and moves fiercely from treetop to treetop. The Barkley boys--Heath (Lee Majors), Nick (Peter Breck), and Jarrod (Richard Long) stayed overnight in Stockton. They agreed to use the nitroglycerin to create a fire line. Audra Barkley (Linda Evans) is moving the orphans to the ranch for their own safety and mother Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) is preparing to make the most painful decision a mother of adult children must eventually make--not to interfere.
Lee Majors who played Heath Barkley in The Big Valley.
When the show begins, we are in the bar with Jarrod who is looking for his brothers. Jarrod is wearing a blue cowboy hat, blue jeans and a blue denim shirt beneath his leather vest. Why? Because this outfit highlights the fact that actor Richard Long has the most beautiful blue eyes in the history of television. Remember, folks, this was before the time of colored contacts. This man could make any woman melt with his stare.
Jarrod walks up to the bar. The bartender, who is packing the alcohol, explains that he helped last time there was a wildfire and when the town was evacuated someone stole all the liquor.
Toby, the town drunk, is seated at a table in the bar with Mr. Carter's fiance, Gail. As you'll recall, Carter was killed when the first delivery of nitro exploded. Gail Miller (Arlene Golonka), his fiance has returned to the bar and her dance hall dress--hot pink with black feathers--as she now has no money--remember, Jarrod refused to lie to the bank so she could inherit her fiance's payment for taking the nitroglycerin up the mountain.
Town drunk Toby gets handsy with Gail Miller and Jarrod stops him. Sobbing, Gail grabs a gun the bartender has left on the bar and runs upstairs, preparing to shoot herself. Jarrod follows and tries to talk her out of it, but she's had enough. She's seen hard times and she's ready to die for her bad luck. "Don't blame it on luck," Jarrod replies. "You put yourself in that dress!"
I must say, Jarrod is not doing so well with the ladies right now. I'm not trying to be judgmental, but the fire is still raging on the mountain, the train is coming in the morning, you could die tomorrow, soldier! Jarrod Barkley--make these last moments count! Save this woman!
Gail Miller claims Jarrod couldn't possibly understand suicide because he has so much to live for. He has money! Jarrod then tells her he's taking the nitro up the mountain in the morning. "But you've got everything," she says. "How can you throw it all away?" Stunned, she gives Jarrod the gun. They go downstairs and Toby remarks, "You've found someone to take Old Charlie's place already!" Gail Miller throws a drink in Toby's face and tearfully runs from the bar...but I have a feeling we have not seen the last of Gail Miller!
Heath checks on the hearse. The town blacksmith is making changes to accommodate the nitroglycerin. When Heath asks how the work is coming along, the man replies, "I feel like I'm building a coffin for my friends." Nice. The blacksmith advises Heath to go spend his last night with a woman. Heath leaves the building. He is surprisingly calm for a man who might die the next morning. Could it be that he knows he will survive this mission and later become The Six Million Dollar Man?
Heath once again encounters Bridget Wells, A.K.A Judy Carne. Carne invites Heath back to the Mission. She offers him tea and talks about her family's missionary work with the Yaqui in Mexico where her family was killed. Then she tells Heath she is consumed by guilt because she pretended to be sick to avoid joining her family in Mexico. She leans over and kisses Heath. "Now, what did that prove?" he asks. Wells repeats a story told by her father, a story told to him when he worked as a missionary in Africa. He said that if a hunter ate the heart of a lion he gained the lion's courage. "I'm not a lion," Heath says, and he leaves her.
Heath is a bit of a strange duck when it comes to women. He is rarely attracted to them, and when they are attracted to him, he's often cold and aloof. His actions in this situation are particularly strange as he is possibly facing a quick death in the morning and he is alone with a beautiful woman, Judy Carne, the "Sock it to Me" girl from Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. You remember the "Sock it to Me" suede halter top and bikini-bottomed Judy, don't you? If not, check out this video.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Audra hears a young girl crying in her bed. "Laurie, what's wrong?" Audra asks. The child sniffles and replies, "It's Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" That's right folks, the little girl is none other than Eve Plumb, who played Jan in The Brady Bunch. Freckle-faced Jan who suffers from an eternal case of middle-child syndrome. But, I digress. In "Explosion II," Eve Plumb really says, "Mary. It's Mary. She's gone back to the orphanage for her sister!" Unfortunately, Mary's sister died in a fire with her parents years before.
Audra, Victoria, Silas and the priest split up in search of Mary. Victoria finds the big-eyed, pig-tailed Mary (Eileen Baral, who made numerous appearances on The Big Valley over the years) in the barn trying to put a harness on a horse. Victoria helps Mary understand that her sister has died and convinces Mary to return to the ranch house and help the other children, who will now look up to Mary knowing she has survived a fire before.
Once inside, with Mary fast asleep, Victoria decides to go to town to check on her boys. Silas finally confesses that the Barkley boys are delivering the nitro in the morning. Aghast, Victoria starts to run out the door, then stops and turns around. "I forgot," she says. "They're not my boys anymore. They're men." Victoria realizes that she cannot see them, because she would only try to convince them not to go. They would go anyway, but they might doubt themselves. She realizes she must trust them and stay home. Wise move, Mom. It's time to let go. As Crush the turtle says in Finding Nemo, "You'll know when you know."
It's 4:45 in the morning and remarkably bright outside. The boys are waiting for the train. I love trains! They are standing before an Old West, one room train station. I love those old train stations! Jarrod asks Nick if he really knows as much about nitro as he claims. "Nick knows as much about nitroglycerin as he does about art," Heath says. Remember the painting for mother Victoria's birthday? The Charles Russell masterpiece? Nick's brothers tease him about his art knowledge, but as it turns out, he does in fact know quite a bit about both art and nitro!
The nitroglycerin arrives and is loaded into the hearse. As the Barkley's ride through town, Jarrod sees Gail miller leaving the bar, dressed in a powder blue dress and white blouse that covers her neckline. She is on her way to start another life as a dressmaker. She sadly waves goodbye as the hearse moves past.
Such great imagery--waving goodbye to the Barkleys who are seated in a hearse filled with nitroglycerin.
The hearse moves slowly up the mountain on a bumpy road. I would have had the men from town filling in those ruts the night before--they knew it was a rough road. They reach a gulley and decide to carry the nitro in boxes across the creek. As they empty the hearse, Nick realizes one of the bottles is leaking. He gently carries it over to a shrub, then removes his black gloves as they are also covered in nitro. Nick is always dressed in black gloves, black vest and black pants. His cowboy hat and boots may be different colors, but his basic outfit remains the same--the handsome cowboy dressed in black (with dimples that show when he smiles.)
He returns to the hearse and the boys realize the nitro has leaked down the axles to the brake pads. They remove the brake pads, which doesn't make sense. Wouldn't the nitro still be on the axles, and everything else it touched, like the floor of the wagon? Oh well. We already know they're in danger! And this is once again proven to us as the nitro in the shrub explodes for no explainable reason--a lizard, a rabbit, a firm breeze, anything could set off the sensitive nitro.
The men reload the nitro and now start down a very steep hill--with no brakes! Oh, could this situation possibly get any worse! The horses, of course, want to run, as horses tend to do when facing a steep hill, so Nick stands in front, holding them back, as the hearse has...no brakes. Nick slips, of course (come on, you didn't see that coming?) and tumbles to the side of the wagon, then all three men stare at each other, realizing they just missed a fiery death.
They finally arrive at their destination, and this is where I am confused. They are within the fire lines. There is fire all around them, on trees, shrubs, everything but the grass. If they are trying to burn anything combustible to create a fire break, shouldn't they be back from the fire line a bit? Instead, they are planting the nitro beneath trees that are next to other trees that are already burning. This is a thick forest. If one tree explodes, the fire will just move to the tree in front of it! Okay, enough criticism. Grab your popcorn. Back to the show.
Suddenly, through the smoke, a woman appears on horseback. It is the missionary, Bridget Wells. She has clearly gained the courage of a lion from her one kiss shared with Heath. She insists on helping, so Heath has her hold the reins of the horses and move them out of harm's way as the hearse no longer has brakes. The men plant the nitro bottles between the burning trees and connect them with gunpowder.
Suddenly, a tree falls on Heath, pinning him to the ground. A line of gunpowder catches on fire when a burning branch falls from above and the flames move quickly toward a bottle of nitro. Wells sees Heath and tries to help. Heath tells her to run. Instead, the once cowardly lioness brings a horse to Heath as burning trees tumble to the ground around her. Nick and Jarrod realize Heath and the girl are missing from the hearse. Wells wraps a rope around a tree and ties it to the horse, and the tree begins to move. Jarrod and Nick arrive and pull Heath from beneath the tree. They help him onto the horse behind Wells and she races him away from the fire as Nick and Jarrod follow behind. The forest explodes, and the fire is out. Just like that.
Hmm, I say to myself. So I look it up in my textbooks and history books and sure enough, a quick blast of nitro will suck the oxygen out of the air long enough to put out a fire. They were not actually creating a fire break, they were sucking out the oxygen. What does fire need? Oxygen and fuel. (This is similar to how fires are extinguished in oil wells.)
The next morning, the Barkley family celebrates Victoria's birthday. Bridget Wells is there, too--you knew Heath couldn't possibly resist the "Sock it to Me" girl for long! Victoria recognizes the artist of the painting the boys give to her--the great Western artist Charles Russell--and is thrilled. She blinks back the tears in her green-eyeshadow covered eyes. Heath and Miss Wells move into the next room. Victoria asks about their evening in town and their luck with the ladies.
Nick and Jarrod both tell their mother their evening ended poorly. "Mine is a sad story," Nick explains. "Mine is a sad story also," Jarrod says. "I so completely reformed a lady that she moved to a dress shop in San Francisco," he tells his mother. "You might say I talked my case right out of court!" Aww, Jarrod, for a lawyer, you are a funny man! Stay tuned...