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TV History: Gunsmoke

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Gunsmoke and the Traditional Western Hero

by James Topor

The content of television programs changed dramatically over the course of the 1950’s. One of the biggest shifts came from the emergence of prime-time western shows, which in the past had been thought of as a children’s genre. Late 1950’s TV saw the potential of western shows for adults, and thus looked to add more maturity to the programs in order to appeal to a greater audience. One of the most popular and successful westerns at the time was Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons and over 600 episodes. While not the first introduction of adult western TV, Gunsmoke, from the first episode, was able to exemplify the mature, prime-time nature that the movement embodied. In the very first episode, from which these clips are taken, the hero, Matt Dillon, is fatally shot and wounded, something that would never happen in a children’s program; from the start, Gunsmoke is able to establish itself as a program fitting the description of the evolving “modern” take on TV westerns.

The overall structure of the show was very similar to the “formulaic convention” that, in the minds of some historians, all westerns followed at the time, being that of a good guy routeinly defeating a bad guy in dramatic fashion. In Horace Newcombs work titled The Opening of America, he questions this argument held by many historians regarding the negative effect the likeness of content in westerns had, by stating that “reaching the conclusions required explorations of character that exceed conventional ‘good guy--bad guy’ formulas” (119). Correspondingly, many aspects of Gunsmoke differentiate it from other popular westerns at the time. In the very first episode, it is made apparent that Matt Dillon is not like most western heros. The plot of the premier episode is made so Matt Dillon is seen as an ultimate heroic figure, not just the story’s hero. Through the way Gunsmoke’s first episode is both introduced as well as how it concludes, it is evident that the main goal was to emphasize the main character of the show, in that Matt Dillon is the lone defender to evil. But, unlike many western heros at the time, he is plagued by the consequences of his duty, yet proceeds to do what needs to be done.

The very untraditional introduction to Gunsmoke is the first instance of Matt Dillon, and the actor James Arness, being emphasized as the focal point of the show. Having no affiliation with the show, the most famous western genre actor of the time John Wayne appears on screen and heavily endorses Gunsmoke by describing it as something he wishes he was in and that it is the best of its kind, being adult and realistic. Furthermore, Wayne introduces the story’s hero and uses himself as a comparison to what he believes James Arness’s Matt Dillon will become in the eyes of the audience. In just this small but powerful endorsement of the show, Wayne chooses to focus on the character Matt Dillon’s prestige, already making the audience view Dillon as a western hero equivalent to the great John Wayne, and greater than any other on TV. To have the most influential western actor of the time associated with a show already elevates its status, something that other westerns at the time did not have. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the way Wayne speaks about Arness promotes Matt Dillon to a level far above other western heros.

The first scene in Gunsmoke, following the title introduction, shows Matt Dillon alone in a cemetery, again highlighting the adult themes present in this late 1950’s western movement. With this, the commentary from Matt Dillon isolates himself from the classical western, showing much more inner turmoil. It is clear in this scene that Matt Dillon has a much darker outlook regarding his responsibilities as an enforcer of law, expressing a disturbance by his duties of ridding the world of bad men, yet also understanding that someone has to do it. The first portrayal of Dillon is very different from that of, for example, Paladin in the first episode of Have Gun- Will Travel: while most western heros are glorified by their shootout victories, Dillon almost indicates remorse by the lives he has to take. Yet, as he later explains in the clip, he acknowledges that someone has to do it and be that opposition to evil. While many 1950’s westerns challenge social issues through events that unfold, Gunsmoke chooses to challenge, in a way, the common theme of killing in westerns through their main character, differentiating their hero from others.

The conclusion of the episode further shows Matt Dillon’s struggles with the unpleasant nature of his duty. After defeating the conventional western bad guy, the man who previously shot and wounded Dillon, the episode proceeds to the end without any dialogue. While often this is a time of celebration and glorification of the western hero, this episode of Gunsmoke takes a much different approach. Matt Dillon exits the building where the violence took place into the street, where his fellow townspeople are waiting. Instead of a joyous celebration of ridding the town of a murderer, the ending scene is rather serious: Dillon walks through the crowd, almost without acknowledging them, and the final shot is of him walking away by himself. This scene accomplishes Gunsmoke’s main focus on the hero greatly, and in the way they wish to portray him. It is clearly Matt Dillon alone as the defender of evil. However, it also shows him as the only one who is plagued by the consequences of the duty he assumes.

The first episode of Gunsmoke succeeds in providing a new-wave style of western TV fitting with the trend taking place in 1950’s TV. Unlike many of the conventional western programs, Gunsmoke clearly establishes the protagonist as the main focus of the show. The role of heros in western programs was seen as generic by many historians, in that their actions in every show were similarly structured. However, as Newcomb explains, “[i]t is true that these characters were male heroes, but the style and definitions of those elements varied widely and significantly” (119). By having John Wayne endorse the hero, it gives Matt Dillon a much more elevated status compared to other western heros at the time. And, by introducing and concluding the episode with solo shots of Matt Dillon, paired with the dark and remorseful attitude born from the duties of being a western hero, Gunsmoke is able to portray a protagonist that differs greatly from the “formulaic convention” that historians believed all western shows followed.

Newcomb, Horace. “The Opening of America”. The Other Fifties, University of Illinois Press, 1997, pp.103-127.

Excerpt from GUNSMOKE

The clip contains the beginning and ending of the first episode of GUNSMOKE.

from Gunsmoke S 1 E 1 (1955)
Creator: Charles Marquis Warren
Posted by Christine Becker