Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Somewhat Hazy Gunsmoke

Joseph West is a good writer. He plots well, he turns some good phrases, and he lets you see the world in which the story takes place. He’s taken all of these skills and applied them to the new Gunsmoke novel, Blood, Bullets, and Buckskin.

We are firmly in the Festus era with this book. The author sets the date at 1878 through the use (and eventual overuse) of a letter from the governor requesting Dillon’s help on a trivial matter.

For the most part I enjoyed the story. There were problems, but when I started reading I didn’t want to nitpick. Although I hadn’t read the three previous Gunsmoke books (penned by Gary McCarthy), online reviewers lambasted the novels with comments about the wildly out of character behavior by Dillon, Kitty, Doc, and Festus.

Yet, the further I read West’s book, the more those small problems grew. You get the feeling that West probably saw a few episodes, most likely of 1970s vintage and not the superior 1950s and 1960s black and white stories. He’s got Festus talking fairly accurately, even if he uses a few too many “Matthews”. Matt’s characterization, though, is uneven. At times West seems to have Dillon down pat. Other times he’s considerably off the mark.

A bit of irony leads off the novel. In James Arness’ introduction he recounts a time when he told writers to cut down on his dialog. This echoes sentiments directors (especially John Ford) had about John Wayne. The Duke’s dialog was usually pared to the bone and that simple action, as much as anything else, helped make him a star. Arness benefits from minimal dialog, too, by his own admission. But West often has Matt Dillion prattling on.

One of the biggest characterization problems with Dillon takes place before the main story opens but is recounted in a long bit of dialog in the first few chapters. In short, five years ago Dillon was unable to stop a man from nearly beating another man to death because he was convalescing from injuries sustained in another adventure. Dillon is shown raging impotently while Kitty cuddles him, crying. This is not Dillon. We’ve seen him shot, near death, rising from his sick bed to take care of the bad guys. Kitty and Doc always argue with him, but once he’s on his feet, they stand beside him.

Two other problems exist in this scene. First, it should have been told in flashback so Chester could have had a scene rather than a passing mention. This is just laziness on West’s part. The second problem is that Festus, who is hearing the story from Dillon, says he knows of but never met Chester. In the show, however, both men met several times. There was, in fact, a transition period as Chester was phased out and Festus came in. The two characters even had a number of scenes together.

Miss Kitty is off-key, too. West tries to explore the relationship she and Matt share. He starts with the premise that Dillon and Kitty love each other. That much is true, but the attempt at sexual tension, while trying to keep the relationship in a neutral position, doesn’t work. Kitty flies off the handle over nonsense. While Amanda Blake’s Kitty could boil over (and on occasion use a gun with deadly accuracy), it took a lot for her to get red mad at Matt.

Doc is nowhere to be seen and one wonders if West decided he couldn’t capture the character’s unique quality. Quint makes an appearance, but it is a perfunctory one, which is a shame. Festus is kidnapped at one point and Matt spends days looking for him. In the television show, Dillon would have engaged Quint as a tracker abilities. In fact, Quint would have volunteered.

The biggest problem, though, comes early, and is in fact signaled by the cover. We are treated to a big shot of Marshal Dillon in the foreground with an action sequence (which does not take place in the book) in the background. Dillon is dressed appropriately, the big US Marshal’s badge pinned on his shirt. The background image – a shootout on Front Street – shows Dillon’s office with a sheriff’s sign clearly in view. It’s an unnecessary confusion.

The misunderstanding of Matt’s authority is reinforced within the first few opening pages as we see Matt riding out far from Dodge, alone on the Kansas prairie. He’s chasing after some killers, and ready to close in for the capture. [West berates us here with a page or so of Matt’s introspection (something we get a lot of), but I don’t fault him for this. I’m sure he needed to get the word count up to appease the publisher.] Taken by surprise, the badmen don’t draw right away when Matt enters their camp. They bide their time. Yet they don’t seem all that concerned. They know Matt is a town marshal and he doesn’t have any jurisdiction outside of Dodge. Matt acknowledges this but tells the killers he’s going to take them in anyway.

Well, you know what happens, of course. But the story is tainted by this grievous error. West continues to pound home the point that Dillon is a town Marshal, and it has an enormous effect by the end of the story. I could have glossed over it if West had ignored Dillon’s jurisdiction, but he used it to provide Matt with an internal conflict at the climax.

No one who has ever seen even a few Gunsmoke episodes could mistake Dillon for a town marshal or a county sheriff. West made the choice deliberately because he was attempting to do something that should never have been done. He was trying to marry the television Dodge City with the real one.

For those of us who love the old west, we know that Dodge, while being a fairly wide open town for years, was not so homespun and rustic as it appeared on the CBS television show. We’ve seen photographs of the famous saloons with their rich, polished wood bars and green-baized gambling tables. We’ve seen the expansive rooms where gambling and live music played out every night. We know that the likes of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were town marshals, and that Doc Holiday came to town on occasion to fleece the hiders and trail hands. We know that Dodge was a fairly good-sized town, split down the middle – respectability and law and order to the north, and wild debauchery to the south. We know that in addition to a town marshal there was a county sheriff who lived within the city limits, too – and that one of the men to serve multiple terms was in fact the owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

The television Dodge is vastly different. It is, for the most of its years, a cow town. It’s rustic, Spartan in appearance and design. The only shot we get of the size of the town is the forced perspective painting on the back studio wall in the opening credits. Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon is a pine board affair with few embellishments. Rarely is there gambling. The entertainment is provided by percentage girls (women who seduce men into drinking), not by soiled doves. Matt Dillon’s Dodge is compact, perennially dusty, and it only has one lawman – the US Marshal.

West tries to bring these two disparate images together and it doesn’t really work. He brings historical fact into the story, and while such things make other novels ring true, his Gunsmoke has the hollow clunk of falsehood. For twenty years (and a few more with the reunion movies) we knew a special kind of Dodge City. It was a place where human stories played out on a dirt and rough wood stage. It was a place where one lawman could keep the fickle populace in line with a hard-spoken word and, if necessary, a single shot of a Colt .44. West wants the best of both worlds and doesn’t really capture either.

The end of the story is a fairly big mess. This is a tale of revenge with some range war overtones. The town divides out for the two factions, Gatling guns are brought in, lots of people die. Matt chooses one side, the lesser of two evils, and manages to put down the fighting.

This was way over the top and not at all in keeping with the show. Thematically, Gunsmoke dealt with very human, personal stories that tended to center around the seven deadly sins. The consequences were always devastating – but only for one person. These were morality plays, not action movies. West tries to imbue his story with the old values of the television show, but ultimately abandons those sentiments in favor of the modern perspective of moral ambiguity and unrealistic pyrotechnics. Shades of gray may have been as prevalent back then as they are today; that’s real life. But it’s not Gunsmoke.

1 comment:

jrstidom said...

I love gunsmoke, and watching Matt Dillion is kool, he is so tall and that makes him a very outstaanding actor. I am so happy to know he is still alive, I have enjoyed reading about him. JMS in South Carolina