Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2014/ 9 Shevat, 5774
Long Branch Musings
By Greg Crosby
The "Gunsmoke" series was created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston. The central character is lawman Marshal Matt Dillon (played on radio by William Conrad and on TV by James Arness). The stories take place in and around Dodge City, Kansas when that town was a main stop during the bustling cattle days of the 1870's. The show was created to be an adult Western, sort of the Wild West version of hard boiled detective shows.
The radio version ran from 1952 to 1961 and the television version ran for 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975, and was the United States' longest-running prime time, live-action drama with 635 episodes. At the end of its run in 1975, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote "Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western as romanticized by Buntline, Harte, and Twain. It was ever the stuff of legend."
James Arness was suggested for the role of Dillon on television by John Wayne. The other main characters were Dillon's faithful sidekick, Chester Goode played by Dennis Weaver; "Doc" Adams played by Milburn Stone; and playing Miss Kitty Russell, Dillon's girl friend, Amanda Blake. The interplay between these characters was wonderful and ahead of its time for television in the early 50's.
So why not resurrect this great American Western in a huge state of the art mega million dollar production for today's audiences? All it takes is a good script, the right director, intelligent production design, and the right cast. Ah, but that's the rub, isn't it? It's tough enough to get a really good script written, then you've got to find a top notch director who understands how to shoot a Western, then you've got to put together the right cast who can give the characters life and believability.
But all that isn't even the hardest part, the really tough nut is getting financing. You need to convince the money people that today's movie audiences would be willing to pay to see a Western movie in a theater. And that, my friends, is almost impossible. To begin with, Westerns as a genre is as dead as the residents in Boot Hill. Young people just can't relate. Even an American classic like "Gunsmoke" has no draw (no pun intended) to modern kids. No one under the age of 50 even remembers the show.
And what modern day director knows anything about shooting a Western picture without spoofing the hell out it? Can anyone remember the last really well done Western that wasn't played for laughs? Can a production company re-create Dodge City and make us believe it exists? And can it be done in this country or must it be produced in Eastern Europe?
And now we come to casting. Who plays Marshall Matt Dillon? Who is today's equivalent of James Arness? Who, among all of today's young leading men, has the quality, demeanor and carriage of a Western hero? Who is today's answer to John Wayne or Gary Cooper? Or even Clint Eastwood?
If you try really hard you might be able to cast a Kitty or Chester or a Doc Adams, but finding a Matt Dillon is another story altogether. Leonardo DiCaprio? Matt Damon? Brad Pitt? Ryan Gosling? Matthew McConaughey? And let's not even go into Johnny Depp who's still trying to forget his infamous Tonto performance in "The Lone Ranger."
Nope, there won't be a "Gunsmoke" feature film made anytime soon. It might have been an interesting idea once, like maybe 30 years ago. But even then I doubt they could have found a suitable Dillon. In the 80's they put Tom Selleck in a few Westerns, but I never could really buy him as a Western Hero. He didn't have that edge, that danger and strength under the surface. That was the problem with Kevin Costner too.
The Westerns may be gone, but take heart. There will always be room for another 3D CGI mega million dollar feature epic featuring a comic book hero or netherworld warrior. You've got nothing to worry about, Ben Affleck.
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© 2008, Greg Crosby