Marshall Matt Dillon is responsible for keeping the law and respectability in Dodge City in this western action-drama. Gunsmoke captured the courage, character and spirit of the Western Frontier.
In its second season, Gunsmoke
blazed its way into the top ten, where it would stay for the next six years (four of them ranked No. 1), and James Arness earned an Emmy nomination for his towering portrayal of U. S. Marshal Matt Dillon. Dillon broke the mold of the TV lawman. As he notes in one episode, "They tell me that back East, there are a lot of book writers and newspaper people who picture a frontier lawman as someone pretty near perfection, who always guns his man down, never makes a mistake, he's at the top of the heap on every play." The "mule-headed" Dillon is not that man. "My job is to keep the peace, and I'll do it my own way," he proclaims. In the episode "No Indians," he ambushes a band of white men who slaughter a family and frame the Pawnee Indians for the crime. "What kind of man would ambush a bunch of men like that?" a wounded survivor protests. "My kind, mister," Dillon replies. In the episode "Cow Doctor," he knocks out a man who knifes Doc. "Let me know when he comes to and I'll knock him out again," Dillon states. And in "The Mistake," he arrests the wrong man for murder.
These half-hour black and white episodes (the show expanded to an hour format in its seventh season) deliver traditional Western action, but at the heart of Gunsmoke are its character-based human dramas. An excellent example is "Gone Straight," featuring Carl Betz (The Donna Reed Show) as a man who answers the description of a wanted outlaw, but who is now an upstanding citizen trying to help another man (Tige Andrews of The Mod Squad) reform. Some episodes play out in unexpected ways that defy convention. We can pretty much guess the fate of an old friend who insists on helping Matt in "The Round-Up," but we can't predict at whose hand.
Gunsmoke was directed by sure Western hands, including Andrew McLaglan, Ted Post, and Christian Nyby. Several episodes were written by Sam Peckinpah, including "The Round-Up" and "Legal Revenge," featuring a young Cloris Leachman as a woman who appears to have it in for her wounded husband. Several episodes address social issues such as racism ("Sins of the Fathers" featuring Angie Dickinson as the daughter of a marauding Indian chief) and gun culture (the powerful "don't take your guns to town" episode, "Young Man with a Gun"). Along with Matt Dillon, the rest of Gunsmoke's characters became archetypes: "Mr. Dillon's" drawling, bum-legged deputy, Chester (Dennis Weaver), ornery Doc (Milburn Stone), and saloon gal, Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), who, by the way, looks quite fetching in a riding outfit. An interesting bonus are the show's sponsor shots for LM cigarettes. "See you next week," Arness puffs. "In the meantime, light up." --Donald Liebenson