Reflections on 'Gunsmoke,' the myth of the lawman and the police reform protests

Reflections on 'Gunsmoke,' the myth of the lawman and the police reform protests
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This summer, as the Black Lives Matter protests overlapped with “safer at home” practices, I slipped into binge-watching the old TV western, “Gunsmoke” — in particular, the pioneer episodes of the 1950s that laid the foundation for the series. In the stories of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, I began to see connections between the lawman in American culture and the fallacies of the police reform demands.

Gunsmoke,” originating as a radio series in the 1950s, became the longest-running television western from 1955 to 1975. The setting was 1870s Dodge City, Kan., when cattle drives went from Texas to the railways in Kansas to the urban markets. The show relied on dramatic story lines and moral resolutions as much as on violent outcomes. It nurtured a mythology of the lawman that left a deep imprint on the American imagination. The myths, in fact, are what defenders of wayward cops sometimes rely on when disputing allegations of wrongdoing.

“Gunsmoke” was co-created by producer Norman Macdonnell and screenwriter John Meston, an Ivy League educated spinner of tales of the white working class. His dramas set a high bar for early television writing but received few awards for excellence in Hollywood. The principal cast included James Arness as Marshal Dillon, who at 6 feet, 6 inches towered over the people of Dodge City; Amanda Blake as the saloon co-owner, Miss Kitty; Milburn Stone as the irascible Doc Adams; and Dennis Weaver as the sidekick with a crippled leg, Chester Goode.

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“Gunsmoke: The First Season,” a collection of episodes from 1955 to 1956 on DVD, preserved the themes that guided the later series. Meston probed the values of the working-class residents of Dodge City, including their outsized pride, cowardice, envy and brutality. He filled the streets, saloons, restaurants, stables and hotels with frontier roughnecks, card sharks, drunks, prostitutes, evangelists, homesteaders, buffalo hunters and more. The stories could harp on the theme of ignorance, such as the 1959 episode, “Bobsy Twins,” in which two depraved, racist brothers attempted to hang a German stable owner when they mistook the word “Germany” for an Indian tribe.

Into this setting came Marshal Dillon. A former soldier in the Union Army, he was strong, earnest, upstanding and dedicated to the law — no matter where the facts led. The early episodes opened with a Dillon monologue as he walked through the cemetery of Boot Hill. He described the reasons that people were buried there and compared Dodge City to “pitching a tent in a lion's den.”

Dillon represented the lawman as an American institution. He walked the streets with an acceptance of the foibles of frontier folk absent any cynicism. He did not try to dominate the townspeople as much as to use discretion to establish a balance between behavior and the law. He always gave an opponent a chance to walk away with the admonishment, “You better think about it.”

Dillon was not without his own eccentricities. He spent as much time in the Long Branch Saloon drinking beer and whiskey with friends as patrolling the streets. His pistol loomed as the ultimate symbol of power. Yet, the legitimacy came from the mastery of that pistol, his ethical use of it, and his determination to wield it on behalf of the law. Dillon was not the fastest gunman in Dodge and, in the premiere episode, “Matt Gets It,” he was shot down by a desperate gunfighter. He compensated for a slower draw with a keen sense of his opponents and the nerve to take an extra moment to place the shot.

Gunsmoke suffered from all of the blind spots of the 1950s when it came to race. Dillon, however, objected to anti-Indian racism, was fluent in a Plains Indian language, and sought peaceful relations with those on the reservations. The show featured actor Eddie Little Sky of the Oglala Lakota tribe in numerous episodes, one of the first Native American actors to play Indian roles.

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All of this is to say that using protests in the streets to displace the standing of the lawman in American culture will be a tall order. The use of smartphone videos to expose abusive police practices has tarnished the image; the visuals exposed behaviors of some police officers that most people rarely see. Yet, the question is how to use this understanding to institute structural reforms.

The demands to “defund the police” or to strip away “qualified immunity” are a weak hand against the cult of the lawman. However, there may be an opportunity to build bipartisan support for better police accountability. It would involve a push to enact local and state laws that narrow the scope of authority of the police unions. Beyond wages and benefits, the unions have intervened in excessive-force disciplinary actions to thwart accountability. They have become systemic impediments to the reform efforts of elected officials and police chiefs, and something must change.

So, might the public culture be more amenable to correctives that target the role of police unions in this regard? The reforms could take advantage of the myth of the honorable lawman while still allowing for needed collective bargaining rights. Moreover, the approach would put recalcitrant union leaders on the spot for defending the right to do wrong. In short, leaders making such demands would risk putting the symbol of the lawman on the table — a political wager that Matt Dillon would caution with a glib, “Don’t bet on it.”

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”