31 March 2018 | ideabook
This Is The End?
I'm going to avoid talking about this Gunsmoke film, the last and final version of Gunsmoke as we knew it: the long dusty line back to the radio program, thru the 20 years on prime-time network TV to the 4 post-series films (or 'long' episodes) produced about 12-19 years later. I guess the elements of the film are familiar to all fans: the event and the bringing bad guys to justice, albeit a strange variation on the theme.
This time it's different. It's the Marshall's last ride. As portrayed by James Arness. Maybe someday it'll come back with a new cast and take another run at it. As someone said about Gunsmoke and its role in American TV 'the series ran for 20 years. In radio they called such series 'sustained' meaning it had a sponsor. This series was 'sustained' for 20 years, and never had to be carried for old times sake'. It held up its own end of the deal. That alone is amazing. What's more is that it probably could have gone on for even more seasons. Such a long run that it often left people, fans, critics wondering, why?.
Gunsmoke started its run on tv in 1955, the year I was born, as just another Western series in a crowded field. The genre crammed network tv and movies for most of the decade: at one point 7 of the top ten shows were Westerns. Studios rushed to produce them. Several led to starting roles for soon to be famous actors. Why Gunsmoke lasted so long has always been a subject of debate. It wasn't the only show with roots to radio, its cast wasn't in particular famous or its management of a higher order. But, it did break away from the usual Western story line. And, over time, was able to develop characters deeply, giving fans a unique feeling of closeness to it. Almost like a part of the family. Something about it hit home with Americans and they kept tuning in.
When they finally put the series down in 1975 most figured it was about time. It had gone on so long that it would be hard to maintain the high script and production values it was famous for. Later on, some of the episodes were just so bad that you had to be a dedicated fan to just watch. One example, episode 16 in season 16, shows how far off the trail it could wander. How many times could the Marshall slay evil while managing to bring along the cast for another brush with death or drama of some sorts?. The series, without even a finale, just went off the air.
But, 12 years later the Marshall rides again. Four more times in all. The last, this effort in 1994, wasn't recognized either as 'the end'. Instead, Dillon just rides off into the dusty sunset. Taking the genre with him. It's only fitting that the Marshall and the series are given that honor. Because it managed to last the longest of all and was probably the best of the lot.
Americans had a special relationship with its Westerns. It's also how many foreign people see Americans as" cowboys chasing bad guys and Indians while we open new space and build stuff, like railroads and towns'. And, the Marshall enforces the law and an American sense of justice for all. He represents the American sense of fairness and order. He is honest, true and faithful. He is fair. In a world full of bad guys and lawbreakers the Marshall holds true.
Those are values that have nothing to do with the West but somehow have come to represent it in books, radio, tv and the movies. Americans were especially receptive to Westerns in the 50s when a changing world forced us to intervene and lead it away from evil Godless Communism. The Westerns gave us all a place where we could see conflicts between people play out and with outcomes we demanded. And, 'Gunsmoke' did just that. Although the concept had been played out by 1975 on tv, and the genre had been exploited way too far, the basis of 'Gunsmoke', the values it represented, still had a serious following. The Marshall never really represented the 'West' but American values superimposed on it. He never gave up. He lost, but not often. But, he never sold out. He didn't cheat. He fought hard, but fair. He was Tom Rath, circa late 1800's.
Given all of that Marshall Dillon couldn't be denied one last ride. That his values never changed isn't hard to believe. He represented what was good in all of us. That will never go out of style. And, who knows how those values will reappear in the future.