When it comes to classic western television shows, there are two names that often come up in the conversation: Bonanza and High Chaparral. Both shows were hugely popular hits in their heyday, but which one truly reigns supreme? In this article, we’ll take a closer look at High Chaparral to determine if it deserves the title of “better than Bonanza.”
High Chaparral premiered in 1967 and ran for four seasons. The show followed the Cannon family, led by patriarch John Cannon, as they tried to establish a ranch in the Arizona Territory during the 1870s. The family was constantly met with opposition from nearby Apache tribes, as well as other ranchers and the occasional outlaw.
Bonanza, on the other hand, premiered in 1959 and ran for a whopping 14 seasons. The show centered around the Cartwright family and their ranch, the Ponderosa, located near Virginia City, Nevada during the 1860s and 70s. Like High Chaparral, they too faced opposition, including rival ranchers and outlaws.
One key difference in the shows is the fact that High Chaparral was set in Arizona, offering a stark contrast to the lush imagery of Bonanza’s Nevada. This setting, along with its focus on the Apache tribe, gave High Chaparral a more distinct voice than its counterpart.
The cast of High Chaparral was led by Leif Erickson as John Cannon. Erickson’s performance was praised for being nuanced and multi-layered, displaying Cannon as a deeply flawed individual, but also one who is trying his best to do right by his family and the Apache tribe. Co-stars included Cameron Mitchell as Buck Cannon, John’s hot-headed brother, and Henry Darrow as Manolito Montoya, a suave Mexican-American friend to the Cannon family.
Bonanza featured a core cast of four Cartwrights: Lorne Greene as patriarch Ben, Pernell Roberts as intellectual Adam, Dan Blocker as lovable giant Hoss, and Michael Landon as the impulsive Little Joe. The dynamic between the four characters was a key aspect of the show’s appeal, with each character representing a different aspect of masculinity.
While the Cartwrights’ chemistry was undeniable, High Chaparral’s cast was praised for their commitment to character development. John Cannon, in particular, was noted for being a complicated character that audiences could relate to on multiple levels. Manolito Montoya, too, was a fan favorite due to his charisma and depth.
High Chaparral’s writing was often praised for its attention to detail and historical accuracy. The show tackled serious issues such as the treatment of Native Americans and the struggles of establishing a ranch in the harsh Arizona terrain. It also explored topics such as gender roles and class division.
Bonanza, too, had its share of socio-political commentary woven into its plotlines. However, much of the show’s focus was on action and adventure, often foregoing subtlety in favor of excitement. High Chaparral, while not lacking in action itself, was considered a more cerebral show, one that was not afraid to take a slower pace in order to thoroughly dig into its themes.
While Bonanza remains a beloved classic to this day, it could be argued that High Chaparral’s legacy has been somewhat forgotten. However, the show’s impact continues to be felt. It was one of the first westerns to feature a Latinx actor in a lead role, and it offered a complex portrayal of the Apache people, something previous westerns had largely failed to do.
Additionally, High Chaparral’s commitment to character development and world-building has been recognized as a predecessor to modern dramas that prioritize these aspects of storytelling. Shows such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos owe a debt to High Chaparral in this regard.
So, is High Chaparral better than Bonanza? That’s a tough call. Both shows are classics in their own right and offer something unique to the genre. However, there is a strong argument to be made that High Chaparral deserves its place in the western television pantheon. Its focus on character development, historical accuracy, and sociopolitical commentary set it apart from other shows of its time and make it a fascinating watch today.
In the end, whether you prefer Bonanza or High Chaparral may simply come down to personal taste. But if you’re in the mood for a thoughtful take on the western genre that still offers plenty of action, High Chaparral is well worth checking out.