Westerns are the embodiment of the early rough draft of the American dream, and fictionalized representations of the ethos of “manifest destiny.” They could be accurately summed up with the title of a real Western: “Have gun, will travel.” That was the spirit of the American pioneer, traveling the expanses of the frontier West and bringing justice to the lawless.
Whenever Westerns are mentioned, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are always brought up, but what of James Arness? Not a movie star of their (gun) caliber – despite co-starring with Wayne in four films – he was nevertheless a defining part of that particular side of Americana. His platform? Television’s Gunsmoke.
Despite its small screen limitations, Gunsmoke was still head and shoulders above the rest of its competition, and in a crowd so dense you couldn’t tip a cow without it falling on a Western for most of its existence.
Not only was it American television’s longest-running Western, it was actually – for a time – the longest-running scripted show in history, of any genre. It isn’t too surprising, when you think about it.
Gunsmoke gave Americans the opportunity for reassurance, in a time of seismic sociopolitical shifts. Riding onto the scene in the mid-fifties, it stayed on the air until 1975, lasting through five presidential administrations and the entirety of the Vietnam War.
The U.S. at the beginning of Gunsmoke’s run was not the same country when it reached its unceremonious end. In between, the show kept its viewers grounded in the fundamental American values they knew to be just, but were struggling to hold onto.
It reflected back to a simpler time, which may never have existed in real life (but it didn’t really matter), of moral absolutes and frontier justice, all during a time when it seemed those values were a thing of the past. It was America – the America everyone knew once was, and hoped could be again. Marshal James Dillon was an authority figure you could count on to never let you down.
He never did, and neither did the show, which eventually left us and rode into the sunset, but – much like the West of old – was never forgotten.