Thursday, July 14, 2011


Yesterday I watched a random 1961 episode* of the TV western Gunsmoke. It was the best thing I have watched in a long time.**

In almost everything I watch, I either know exactly what is going to happen or I do not care what happens. But this show was able to create a rare sense of tension in me. At several points, I had no clue what was going to happen next, and against all logic, I found myself caring.

This may be because I am unfamiliar with the show. After seeing more episodes, I will probably be able to predict things better and it will lose its ability to generate dramatic tension. But even then, the show would still be a better thing to watch than most others, assuming most episodes are of this quality. The writing, acting, and technical quality of the show were all of high quality.

The plot seemed quite sophisticated for 1961. It was about a woman who had been captured by one tribe of Indians and sold to another. The main character, the town marshal, accompanies some cavalry on a mission to buy her back. The leader of the cavalry is a racist 'Indian hater' and his violent nature threatens the mission. The marshal soon discovers that the woman is reluctant to leave; she had been treated well and enjoys her new life. She and the brave who bought her have fallen in love with each other.

Maybe this plot line is a tired old trope that shows up in many Western stories, but it was new to me and it was executed well. I usually enjoy any story where there are no real bad guys and the conflict comes from a clash of values or circumstances, with everyone honestly trying to do what is right but having different beliefs about what that is. The show did this well; even the racist cavalry officer, who was clearly portrayed as the 'bad guy', was a sympathetic character who cared about his men and his  mission.

Much of the tension came from the implied threat of violence in the genre; I found myself thinking that the negotiations might fail, and some incident would lead to a big firefight between the cavalry and the Indian tribe. I did not want that to happen, and so I was hoping that the marshal could manage a peaceful solution. If that feeling was what the filmmakers intended, as I believe it was, it shows a maturity that is often lacking in TV shows.

Sure, there were all kinds of minor flaws. They pushed the 'noble savage' theme a bit too far, many of the 'Indians' were clearly Anglo actors, and their costumes had a few too many seashells for a Kansas tribe.  The woman looked way too good for spending a year in a hunting camp: she had the typical suite of 'hollywood blonde' superpowers, including the ability to skin a buffalo without getting her fingernails dirty, and the ability to make the wind cause her dress to flutter just the right way. 

But these flaws, or worse ones, are still present in most things. The woman still seemed more real than a lot of characters in modern shows.

This episode of Gunsmoke compares favorably to the good episodes of the original Star Trek, the ones based on scripts written by good science fiction writers. I am guessing that Gunsmoke also benefited from good writing. The Western novel was a highly refined at that time, which meant that everyone had high standards to live up to, and a deep pool of plots and characters and situations to draw from.

My enjoyment of the show could be party due to me expecting it to be bad. I have seen various Western movies, including classics, and was generally not impressed. I expected this to be worse.  I watched it on Netflix because I was curious. I mainly saw it as a historical document, a glimpse into the dominant American culture of my parents' childhood. I knew that Westerns used to be the dominant thing, and I chose Gunsmoke because it was the best and longest-lasting show.

I am glad that I took the time to watch it as an experiment. There is a lot to be said for sampling lots of things that are widely agreed to be high-quality, rather than just sticking with more copies of things you have liked in the past.

* Season 7, episode 10, "Indian Ford"

**Note that I normally watch about four or five hours of moving pictures a month, so this is not really saying that much.

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