Learning from Marshal Dillon

Despite the wealth of scholarship on the subject, parents still tend to underestimate how much television characters mold children’s behavior. Take the honest lawman Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke,” who taught lessons about honor and ethics that seeped into the consciousness of millions of developing minds in ways that a schoolteacher could only dream of accomplishing.

Dillon, portrayed by James Arness, kept the streets of Dodge City safe from bad guys without ever crossing the line into unsavory methods. He carried his six-shooter with a good heart and a steel backbone. Always calm in the face of evil, he avoided violence, but if pushed, he would wait for the bad guy to shoot first. Quicker than any mad-eyed gunslinger, he never lost a shoot-out with an outlaw – and even that violence was minimized by scenes of bloodless bodies shot at a distance. His attraction to Kitty, proprietor of the Long Branch Saloon, also never strayed into improper territory. As the quintessential hero, Marshal Dillon’s outsized integrity matched his 6-foot-7-inch frame. He always took the right course of action, the one best for the greatest number of people.

Arness’ death in June brought feelings of nostalgia and loss to millions of people across the United States. Millions of families had gathered around black-and-white television sets on Saturday nights to see the latest adventures of Dillon, Kitty, Doc Adams and Festus. It was a night of family entertainment that delivered messages about right and wrong that left lasting impressions. A pure code of ethics governed Marshal Dillon’s worldview, and viewers loved him for it. Boys pretended they were him in schoolyard play and girls dreamed of one day marrying someone just like him.

TV doesn’t deliver much character-enhancing entertainment these days. Westerns have dropped from favor and, when one does make it to the screen, it’s more likely to follow the bloodbath, graphic-sex model that contemporary viewers expect these days. The sanitized, good-hearted fantasy of the Wild West in “Gunsmoke” – the model suitable for impressionable children – morphed into an ultra-realistic model that often makes for riveting television but is hardly suitable for young people to watch. In this model, the bad guys often live luxuriously (or at least powerfully) and the good guys are so conflicted that whatever moral core into which they’re able to tap gets lost in their moments of personal failure.

“Deadwood,” a critically acclaimed western that aired on HBO as a series until 2006, is an example of the modern model. It fictionalizes a real place in South Dakota and some of the real people who lived there back when it was a Gold Rush mining town, but it’s strangely reminiscent of “Gunsmoke.” There is Seth Bullock, the right-minded sheriff trying to keep the peace in a bloodthirsty town; there’s Doc, who treats the sick and dying, the evil and innocent alike; and there’s even a well-intentioned saloon girl, though much less upright than Miss Kitty.

Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a decent, modern-day Marshal Dillon type – but with character flaws. He tracks down the murderer of Wild Bill Hickok and takes him to face trial instead of gunning him down on the spot, as Bullock’s expression implies he’d really like to do. But this sheriff’s moral high ground is tainted by his indulging in a lustful affair with a rich widow before his wife arrives to join him, his beating of the town’s weasel of a mayor because he feared the mayor had gossiped about the affair and his frequent decisions to look the other way after episodes of brutality because interference would jeopardize the town’s future. Marshal Dillon never would’ve given in to those temptations.

“Deadwood” is, of course, also rife with implied fellatio, throat-slashing, foul language, treachery and abuse of women. Murder victims are fed to the hogs. Many other shocking moments give viewers what they’ve come to expect these days from the rawest of television and movie scripts.

A more likely version of the Wild West? Probably. First-rate adult drama? Definitely. A good teacher for future generations? That is a big “no.” Kids wouldn’t understand the theatrical personae, only the nudity, profanity and brutality.

It could easily be kept from children, but no doubt many would see it one way or the other anyway, just like millions of underage children play the violent video game Grand Theft Auto. There is so much darkness in the media that youngsters are subjected to it from the moment they get up in the morning until the moment they go to bed at night. Even Alice in Wonderland has been debased with gore. A soon-to-be-released video game called Alice: The Madness Returns is rated “M” (for “mature”) because it’s filled with sexual content and violence.

As a consequence, instead of boys playing outside like they’re Matt Dillon, they play video games about stealing cars and murdering people inside. In many cities, parents won’t let their kids play outside anyway because of the real-life violence that they see in the news.

Thankfully, Dillon still does his thing in reruns of “Gunsmoke;” he’s still teaching lessons of rightness (to people who like that sort of thing).

Kareen Hailey, a 36-year-old who grew up in the Hollygrove neighborhood around Claiborne and Carrollton avenues, watches these reruns. Even though he’s too young to have seen the original series on CBS, he’s hooked now.

“He is what America wants to be like,” Hailey says, “but we just can’t get it.”

The Facts:
The “Gunsmoke” series, set in Dodge City, Kan., in 1873, ran on CBS for 20 years, 1955-’75. After its 635 episodes – the most in TV history – movies followed up into the ’80s, some of which developed a more complicated Dillon. James Arness, who was recommended for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon by John Wayne, died June 3, 2011, at the age of 88.

The “Deadwood” series, set in Deadwood, S.D., in the 1870s, was aired on HBO from 2004-’06, in three seasons of 12 episodes. Though immensely successful, a financial dispute led to its cancellation.

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