BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GUNSMOKE MOVIE COLLECTION

By • May 11th, 2004 •

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Paramount

CBS originally produced these spinoff features following the demise of the second longest running series on TV. GUNSMOKE was an ‘adult’ western, but more than that, the show kept up a standard of writing excellence that made its simple visual/directorial style highly satisfying. James Arness, its default lead after John Wayne had passed on it and recommended his sometimes co-star, profited heftily from this fortunate play of events. After the original half-hour series began to peter out, Arness offered to buy the show from its producers, and expanded it to an hour length, adding color. Defying the odds, the show got even better and rejuvenated itself. After it finally ran its course, Arness tried his hand at another series but, failing in that, returned occasionally to these made-for-TV feature updates on Matt Dillon’s life in the years following his retirement as Marshall of Dodge City. Keeping up the Duke’s tradition, fifteen years after the American icon kicked the bucket, of the hard frontiersman with a moral code, it could be said that Arness embodied Wayne’s quote from his last film, THE SHOOTIST, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

RETURN TO DODGE is the weakest of the three, despite the presence of original behind-the-camera members of the TV team, and a last, loving look at heavenly whore Kitty, played by Amanda Blake, who acquits herself well emotionally, but worried me constantly with what appeared to be difficulty making her dentures behave. Steve Forrest is the main villain, and he’s shown in one of the old series episodes beating her up. He does it again here. Was Blake secretly a member of the Brando/Gibson Club de Masochismo?

Where Blake seems to be working on her performance, Arness is effortless, something audiences welcomed from him. He’s aged quite a bit, not only like leather, but like leather left out in the rain too long. His nose has distorted with age and the elements, and once or twice I found him visually evoking ‘The Thing’ more than ‘The Marshall.’ Nonetheless, after taking a little getting used to, he was terrific.

The same cannot be said for the silly fish-out-of-water neophyte cavalryman subplot. And the soldier’s love interest is a young Indian maiden whose accent is neither Native American nor probably any other ethnic group on this planet. Each intrusion by this unfortunate plot element into the narrative is one more too many. The disc is not a ‘keeper’ for this reason. Others in the cast such as Earl Holliman, and Forrest, are quite satisfactory, and the flashbacks are powerfully nostalgic. There is a scene with Arness and Holliman which shamelessly, but, it must be said, effectively, borrows from the third act of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

In GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE, a limited budget and straightforward directorial effort are shod with integrity. Arness’ name in the credits as ‘Consultant’ may imply just that. The best scene in the film belongs to Richard Kiley and Geoffrey Lewis as opponents in an Old West variation of Russian Roulette. Both of these veterans are terrific, and it’s the scene that makes this disc a keeper. Introduced here is a feisty daughter Dillon never knew about, and she reprises her role in:

GUNSMOKE: TO THE LAST MAN. Now the wandering ex-Marshall finds himself in the middle of a messy range war. Arness turned 81 recently. In this final GUNSMOKE TV feature, made twelve years ago, he looks at least his current fourscore years. Too thin for comfort, he nonetheless acquits himself remarkably well. He’s alone now in the frames, in the sense that none of his CBS family of actors is with him, nor his producers, directors, or writers of yesteryear. But the film is pleasant. A bit formulaic, not well transferred (which the first one is), but not half bad.

But wait a minute: what’s up with that black hairpiece on the DVD cover? It makes Arness look like Louis Prima in his mid-life crisis period. Whoever’s idea that was should be scalped. Arness’ fans didn’t need to see him gussied up like a young buck to come around one last time.

Incidentally, Arness’ autobiography came out last year from McFarland.



GUNSMOKE: RETURN TO DODGE
(1987)
113 mins. ‘R’ rating.
Directed by Vincent McEveety. Written by Jim Byrnes. Director of Photography Charles Correll. Supervising Producer, Stan Hough. Produced by John Mantley.
With James Arness, Amanda Blake, Buck Taylor, Earl Holliman, Steve Forrest, and clips of Milburn Stone, Glenn Strange, and Ken Curtis.

GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE (1990)
94 mins. ‘PG-13’ rating.
Directed by Charles Correll. Written by Earl Wallace. Produced by Stan Hough.
With James Arness, Michael Learned, Richard Kiley and Geoffrey Lewis.

GUNSMOKE: TO THE LAST MAN (1992)
92 mins. “R” rating.
Directed by Jerry Jameson. Written by Earl Wallace. Produced by Ken Swor.
With Arness, Pat Hingle, Morgan Woodward.

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