Death on the (TV) Frontier

Years ago, a study on television violence maintained that children exposed to an average of 25 hours of TV programming a week will witness 8,000 murders before they leave elementary school. If those numbers are accurate, that would probably mean that I, based on the number of hours of television I logged as a kid, combined with the types of shows I watched, probably saw a lot more than 8,000 murders. I assume this based on the fact that my genre of choice during my formative years was westerns, and there was usually a lot more mayhem in one episode of “Bonanza” than in five seasons of “I Love Lucy.” While the study did not conclude that a steady dose of television would necessarily lead to children being prone to violence, its findings did suggest that children at the very least, could become desensitized and develop a lack of empathy for human suffering. But using myself as a model, I am not a particularly physically aggressive person, and after countless hours of watching TV, I feel I am still very sensitive to human suffering, especially my own. But I do have to agree that, after a boyhood devoted to watching television westerns, I came away with a distorted view of death, mainly in terms of how it occurs, the frequency, and what it would look like up close. Re-watching many of those programs as an adult has allowed me to examine the obvious disconnect between reality and fantasy of life and death on the American frontier.

One cannot blame television for how much the American West during the second half of the 19th Century became so romanticized…the process began 150 years ago while the history of the West was still unfolding. Newspapers of the period were eager to report the exploits of outlaws such as Jesse James and “Billy the Kid,” as well as lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. Soon came the so-called “dime novels,” pamphlets that either exaggerated the activities of well know western figures, or invented them from whole cloth. By the 20th Century, the image of the cowboy had become America’s most noteworthy contribution to the world’s popular culture, immortalized by the paintings of Charles Russell, the sculptures of Frederick Remington, the writings of Zane Grey and the motion pictures of John Ford. By the time TV came along in the mid-20th century, America’s understanding of life on the frontier had been twisted into the simplicity of a 90 minute John Wayne movie, comprised mostly of cattle stampedes, barroom brawls, Indian attacks, train holdups, and of course gunfights…lots of gunfights.

In the early days of television, westerns were produced as children’s entertainment, relegated to Saturday afternoons. Starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, these shows were action packed adventures with plenty of shooting, but surprisingly, not a lot of fatalities. The Lone Ranger shot to wound or disarm, never to kill. But in the fall of 1954, Walt Disney introduced Davy Crockett to America in a series of prime-time television episodes, m6oz2v-m6oz18davycrockettwhich not only touched of a national fad, but also convinced network executives to rethink westerns role in TV programing. In the fall of 1955, came the first three “adult” westerns…”The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” Cheyenne,” and of course, “Gunsmoke.”
Beginning as a radio series in 1952, “Gunsmoke” made its CBS television debut on September 10, 1955. Lasting 20 seasons, “Gunsmoke’s” principle character, Matt Dillon, played by James Arness, became one of television’s most enduring fictional figures, and, by my count, probably its most prolific killer. During “Gunsmoke’s” 635 episodes, Matt Dillon is estimated to have shot over 300 people, most of them fatally. Of course, Dillon can’t really be faulted for this, as he was the Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, and shooting people was part of his job. But this is where I have to confess my personal interpretation of 19th Century frontier life was formed more from television than from books containing more accurate information. After years of watching “Gunsmoke,” I was shocked to learn that old west gunfights were not that common, and history records only about 30 significant shootouts occurring between 1840 and 1918. The reason why the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” stands out so vividly is because it was an exception to the reality of the historic frontier…Taking place in Tucson, Arizona on October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holiday, squared off against Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury. In a battle that lasted 30 seconds, Both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed, and it’s not certain if Wyatt Earp was responsible for any of the three deaths. Although no one is quite sure, historians figure Earp probably killed no more than six men in his entire lifetime, a number that pales compared to what Matt Dillon could rack up in half a TV season.

“Gunsmoke’s” initial episode, entitled “Matt Gets It,” is unique in that, in his first ever television gunfight, Matt Dillon is beaten, and severely wounded by gunfighter Dan Grat (Paul Richards) who then proceeds to run amuck in Dodge City during Matt’s long recovery period. Before their second confrontation, Marshall Dillon correctly figures that Grat, while obviously the faster with a gun than Matt, is not a particularly accurate shooter. Sure enough, in the rematch, Matt keeps his distance, and kills his opponent after Grat’s shot is just a bit outside. The myth of the gunfighter is commonplace in western folklore, and Matt Dillon was constantly being challenged by gunslingers eager to make Matt Dillon another notch on their gun barrels…in fact, the opening title sequence of “Gunsmoke” each week depicted Matt stepping out into the street and successfully dispatching a generic gunman. Gunfighters were so common on “Gunsmoke,” as well as on other TV westerns, that it seemed that there was some sort of formal rating service that determined who was currently the “Fastest Gun in the West.” Men were judged by their ability to handle a gun, comparable to today’s individuals having a golf handicap. Although Matt Dillon was usually reluctant, he was rarely able to avoid the ultimate showdown on Front Street, and the result was generally that his foe ended up regretting Dillon’s warning to “Get out of Dodge.”

But as stated earlier, gunfights were few in the actual old west, and the spectacle of two men facing each other in the street, daring one another to make the first move was almost unheard of. Most gun battles happened in the spur of the moment, and the shooting would start immediately, with no one asking anyone to “step outside.” In many westerns, prominent gunslingers would seek each other out, eager to test his skill against anyone with a top reputation. In reality, gunfighters who either worked for the law, or hired themselves out to protect the interests of wealthy ranchers, were not interested in facing anyone with equally abilities…kind of like Floyd Mayweather.

gun-gunsmokeI’ll say this for Matt Dillon…his killings were relatively bloodless. None of his targets were ever shot through the head, and most died instantly. In fact, Marshall Dillon was so practiced in his profession, he normally never felt the need to bother to check on the condition of the many bodies he left lying around the frontier. Speaking of which, I’ve also noticed that some victims of shootings are uncanny in their ability to access their own medical situation. How many times have we seen some hapless person, after suffering a bullet, forsake the services of a doctor, saying , “No, it’s too late for that,” but not too late to give a lengthy deathbed speech, a curtesy afforded only to the central characters…apparently henchmen #’s 2 and 3 never have any last words.

Although I’ve crowned Marshall Matt Dillon as televisions all-time death merchant, honorable mention has to be given to “The Rifleman’s” Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors). McCain, using his tricked-up Winchester, was able to blow away close to 120 men during the show’s five year run. Not only was McCain able to run up his number in just 168 episodes (compared to “Gunsmoke’s” 635), but he was able to do so while just being the owner of a small ranch. Although McCain’s son Mark witnessed many of his father’s shootings, he still trails me in the number of killings he witnessed by several thousand.

Yes, so let’s get back to that study about television violence. Although we’ve been told that children averaging 25 hours a week will see 8,000 murders before leaving elementary school, I have to dispute those findings. First of all, the term “murder” is a bit pejorative, as many of the deaths were in the line of duty, and those guilty who may have been guilty were often, in the old frontier, never convicted in a court of law. But secondly, these were scripted drams, and no real killing took place. In fact, the only real murder I saw before leaving elementary school was Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.

Note: ABC’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” starring Huge O’Brien debuted September 6, 1955, four days before “Gunsmoke.” What children may have found confusing was the fact that Earp and Matt Dillon both held the same job…Marshall of Dodge City. I guess in this case, the town was big enough for the two of them.

3 thoughts on “Death on the (TV) Frontier”

  1. I always wondered how people Matt Dillon might have shot…I wonder if the Cartwrights (all four combined) come close?

  2. I’ve often wondered about the “negative” effect seeing all these killings in TV might have had on our generation. Guess we, somehow, didn’t end up too messed up!

    An enjoyable read and walk down Memory Lane. For the rest of the day I’ll be humming the theme songs fromWyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp…long live his name and long live his glory..) Davy Crockett (King of the wild frontier), Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Rifleman!!

  3. Great read. The Rifleman holds up well even now. What’s fun about all of it is the sheer lawlessness of some of the villains! You and I had a talk about how Lucas would always go, “I’m going into town Mark. You be careful, boy!” Given the sheer lawlessness surrounding the ranch, one could argue that Lucas wasn’t as great a “Paw” as we thought! I got to re-watch lots of these whenever I’d be at Dad’s. It’s much better with a thundering sound bar, which was akin to sitting inside the engine of a jetliner! Fun piece.

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