Sunday, January 31, 2021

Gunsmoke: The Movies

By Christopher Robinson, WMD Author

The enduring appeal of TV’s biggest western series
led to five network television films which further chronicled the exploits of Matt Dillon as an aging retired U.S. Marshal drifting through new adventures in a changing West.

After producer John Mantley and star James Arness trekked the frontier in the epic series How the West Was Won, it was time to ride familiar western territory once more.

Return to Dodge

Twelve years after Gunsmoke’s unanticipated and unceremonious cancellation, CBS produced Return to Dodge, a reunion and sequel to 1969’s darkly dramatic story “Mannon.”

Steve Forrest reprises his dastardly role of the slick and cunning Will Mannon, whose twisted games include abusing the Long Branch Saloon’s Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and holding her as bait for Matt, whose gun many believe Mannon can easily outdraw.

Now a prison parolee, Mannon hunts first the judge who passed sentence on him and then the former marshal who brought him to justice. Before setting out to kill Matt, Mannon targets Kitty who has returned to Dodge City upon learning that Matt has recently been injured.

Earl Holliman, in an exuberant performance, plays an escapee named Jake, rushing to warn Matt of Mannon and running from a cavalry lieutenant who believes Jake to be the judge’s killer. This supporting role always feels as though it had been initially written for Dennis Weaver or Ken Curtis, neither of whom were available or willing to reprise their respective Gunsmoke characters.

Overall, Return to Dodge moderately recaptures the spirit of the long-running show it is based upon despite its outdoor scenes, shot in Canada, that don’t pass for the Midwest Plains.

Many have also noted Arness’s “waxy” look, an apparently failed cosmetic attempt to make the veteran actor resemble his former self.

If there is something that does succeed in Return to Dodge, it’s the final opportunity to see Matt and Kitty together. Familiar faces Newly O’Brien (Buck Taylor) and Miss Hannah (Fran Ryan) are also on hand.

From there on, however, Gunsmoke’s Dodge City would never be depicted again and notwithstanding his horse, Matt would henceforth be on his own.

The Last Apache

Just as “Mannon” provided the narrative foundation for Return to Dodge, so did “Matt’s Love Story” for The Last Apache. A ‘Matt only’ episode from 1973, the story was a clever device for Gunsmoke’s writers, eager to give Matt Dillon a romantic situation without blatantly violating his relationship with Kitty.

Suffering from a case of amnesia after being wounded in the desert, Matt is nursed back to health by a homestead widow named Mike (Michael Learned). Eventually, Matt falls in love, oblivious to the life he has temporarily abandoned. But in the end, he regains his memory and in a bittersweet scene, tells Mike he must turn back— The End (or so we thought).

Now, 17 years on, with Kitty out of the picture, the producers were free to follow up on the Matt and Mike relationship, despite the ire of many a devoted Gunsmoke fan.

As he learns he is the father of Mike’s daughter, Beth (Amy Stoch), the now-grown child is abducted by an Apache renegade named Wolf. Soon Matt, Mike and their friend, army scout Chalk (Richard Kiley) are in hot pursuit.

Dillon then butts heads with stubborn army officers intent on hanging two of Geronimo’s young Apaches and is jailed after his request to set up a trade is refused.

After Mike breaks him out, he frees the Apache boys and takes off in search of Wolf who has held Beth at the Apache camp to take as a wife.

One considerable issue with this premise is its time frame of 1886 (the Apache surrender). Followers of the series may have noticed that the events on Gunsmoke took place after the Civil War. That being the case, if ‘Matt’s Love Story’ occurred in the 1880s, then these events should have occurred within the first part of the 20th Century— or Beth would never have aged!

Another issue regards Matt’s character in general. Despite the involvement of some of the show’s original creative team, the resourceful, diplomatic Matt Dillon we remember has evolved into a gritty and headstrong ‘Dirty Harry’ type.

“That Apache brave... if he’s harmed my daughter, I aim to kill him.”

He’s only been aware of having a daughter for a matter of hours and already become one of the very overbearing and irascible prairie dads he had to talk sense into so many times throughout the series.

In fact, after this film there would be little resemblance to anything on the series, this being the final story based on a Gunsmoke episode. The saga would subsequently see Matt and Beth as a rambling father and daughter team with Arness continuing his impressive run as Dillon into a fifth decade!

Michael Learned, reprising her guest role, epitomizes the western heroine remarkably. Her combination of tough-hewn spirit and relaxed beauty seem ideal if so many other factors in The Last Apache may not.

The casting of Richard Kiley has some poignancy, too, as he had starred in his own episode titled, astonishingly enough, “Kitty’s Love Affair” - bringing us to a final bit of irony.

All of this was ultimately dedicated to one Amanda Blake, the actress who, for 19 years, portrayed Kitty Russell— the woman in Matt’s life who patiently endured the disappointments and sacrifices that came with his badge and kept them from riding off together to start a new life... In that regard, it’s not exactly the most complimentary of tributes but you take what you can get.

Return to Dodge and The Last Apache are available on DVD and can be seen currently on INSP Network.

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

Be sure to visit THE TV WESTERN AND MOVIE FAN PAGE on Facebook!

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Cadwallader- Chapter 5 - The End of the Beginning


Editor's Note: The Cadwallader story is part of an ongoing saga straight out of the Old West. Authored by T.K. Hugh, you will not find out what has brung our main character near to death in the hot New Mexico desert. --Al Colombo

  I snapped out of my daydream just in time to avoid stepping into a large arroyo that was hidden by the deepening shadows of the afternoon.
Had I fallen down the embankment in my present condition I would have never been able to climb back out. I sank down to one knee. I was tired, bone tired and very thirsty once again.

  I forced myself up and began walking around the rim of the big gulch, keeping my back to the sun to make sure I didn’t get turned around. For the first time since I had started walking I became aware of my feet. They were a mess after walking miles in boots made for riding. Blisters had formed and busted more than once and I started to dread every step. If I didn’t make the wells today, I was a goner.

  After passing the arroyo, I just kept walking east, one foot in front of the other. The pain in my feet blended with the overwhelming fatigue. The sun on my back became a force pushing me onward, like a giant hand. Suddenly one of my feet caught on something and I fell forward and hit the ground hard. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t make my arms and legs obey. Then everything went black.


  The morning after the dust up in the Regency saloon, I sat across the dining room table from Sheriff Webb drinking coffee. I had already checked out of the Regency and had my saddlebags across an unused chair. We small talked about the weather and such and then his face took on a hard look.

  “Ben, I know that you had no intention of staying in Las Vegas when you came here, but is there any way that I might be able to convince to you stay on a while?” He went on quickly, “I know that you were a deputy in Leadville for a couple of years and you had quite a reputation for keeping the peace. There are some…” 

  Right then I cut him off with the wave of my hand. “I’m done with that, John,” I told him. “I want to build a real future. I have all I have saved over the past years in that empty chair,” I said motioning to the saddlebags. “Look, I respect what you do but I know from personal experience that the kind of peace keeping that men like us do never lasts. When this place gets civilized, they’ll want a different kind of man wearing that star,” I finished. 

 I motioned the waitress for more coffee. As I did so I noticed the girl that I had seen in the hotel dining room on my first night in town sitting at another table.

 “I’m heading for Mora,” I said with finality, cutting off all further discussion of the matter.
Webb put down his coffee and slid a dollar coin next to his unused saucer, paying for us both.        

 “Ben, I understand the pull that, that big open range can have on a man. I been tempted myself,” he said as he got up from the table. “Best of luck,” he said as he placed his hat on his head and walked out the door into the street, leaving me to my coffee and my thoughts.

I was in the street about halfway to the livery where I had left my horse when I heard her call out to me. 

 “Mr. Cadwallader! Mr. Cadwallader!” I looked back and saw the girl from the café running toward me holding her dress in both hands. I stopped until she caught up and then caught her breath.

 “Mr. Cadwallader,” she said again still slightly out of breath. “My name is Nancy Frey. My brothers and I have been in Las Vegas for two weeks waiting for someone who might be heading toward Mora”. 

  She stopped talking to draw a few more deep breaths. All the while she was talking I was sizing her up. She was older up close than I had originally thought, but she still couldn’t have been more than twenty five or so.

 When she looked up I asked, “How do you know I’m headed to Mora?” 

 “Well,” she said, looking downward a little, “I was listening to you talk to the Sheriff.”  “I know it’s not ladylike to eavesdrop, but when I heard you say you were heading to Mora, I just couldn’t help it!”

 As she finished talking she moved a little closer to me than need be. I suddenly had a feeling that she was used to getting what she wanted, “Please,” she said looking up directly into my eyes. 

 Well maybe it was my upbringing in the mining camps where decent women were scarce, but suddenly I just didn’t want to disappoint Miss Frey.


That’s how I ended up traveling with Nancy Frey and her brothers, Ned and William. I had no idea what a short trip it would be.

 Although Mora is only about fifty miles from Las Vegas, you can’t just go straight there. You have to travel northwest in a zigzag pattern to stay on ground where a wagon could roll, which was my problem. 

  When I first agreed to take the Frey’s to Mora, I thought we would be traveling horseback. When they rolled that buckboard out of the stables I thought about just quitting right there. But a girl like Nancy Frey can make a man feel all chivalrous, like one of those knights in the books my father kept and real aloud every so often when I was a boy, so on we went, wagon and all. Besides, she told me that she couldn’t ride a horse, which I scarcely could believe.

  That first day we only made about ten miles and I didn’t figure this was a good sign since we hadn’t got into the really rough country yet. 


  It had been three days by my figuring and we'd only made it about half way to Mora, which irritated me to no end. I had planned on four days tops, and had stocked water and food accordingly. I was thinking that we might have to lengthen our trip yet again and take a detour to Navaho Wells for more food and more importantly water.

  Something else was bothering me. I noticed that every now and then I’d catch Ned or William looking at my saddlebags. I was wondering if Miss Frey had heard more than just my destination while eavesdropping the other night. I had what amounted to about two or three years cowpoke wages in those saddlebags. And it was mostly gold, which would spend just as well in Mexico as it would in New Mexico or Texas. Now I’m naturally a suspicious man, but I still tried to put the thought that the pretty woman riding in the wagon beside me was anything other than what she seemed to be.

 We camped that night near a rock outcropping witch afforded shelter from the desert winds and provided sort of a natural corral for our picketed horses.

 After our supper of dried beef and beans I was sitting back on my saddle and decided to tell the Frey’s my idea about Navaho Wells.

 “I’m thinking we might have to make this trip a little longer than I thought,” I started out. “The wagon has slowed us down quite a bit and made us take a longer route than I had planned. If we take a day to get to Navaho Wells, there’s a trading post and fresh water this time of year. Another day back, and we can get to Mora in about another three days.”

 “NO!” Nancy exclaimed as she stood up so quickly her tin plate fell out of her lap. “We have to get to Mora as quickly as possible. My hus…father is waiting for us there,” she stammered.”

  I was leaning toward the fire to get more coffee when suddenly I saw a bright flash of light and I fell forward, almost into the fire. I was barely conscious, and my arms and legs seemed to be asleep, so I just lay there and listened.

 “Get the saddlebags off his horse and cut him loose,” Nancy Frey ordered. It was now plain to see who was in charge. Either Ned or William cut Red’s picket line and gave him a hard slap. Red had always been skittish, so I figured he was good for a few miles before he even slowed down.

 “Is he dead?” she asked in a cold voice.

 “He’s still breathing,” I heard Ned say. “Want me to shoot him?”

 “Too many people saw us leave town with him,” she said. “Take everything but his boots. It will look like his horse spooked, threw him and he hit his head.” 

 “By the time his body is found out here in this wasteland, we will be safely back across the Mississippi,” she said with certainty.

  “What if he don’t die,” asked William.

 “Well, a man like him might actually be able to survive with a crack on his skull, brother,” she said while picking up a large rock. “But I don’t think he could survive two, “she said as I heard her walking toward me. 

Stay tune for Chapter 6, next week! --Carrie Aulenbacher

About the Author

T.K is a US Navy veteran and an engineer with over 30 years experience. 

He is a weapons enthusiast, and a student of the Old West. A man out of his time, he feels as if he should have been born a hundred years earlier. 

Both sides of his family arrived in America several generations before the Revolution. 

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Sunday, January 3, 2021

Old Tucson: The Go-To Locale for the O.K. Corral

By Christopher Robinson

The wild days of western yesteryear could be credibly relived every time a camera crew set up in the ruby glow of the Arizona sun in that ever-faithful western movie town known as Old Tucson.

As the shooting location for more than 300 westerns, the fabled studio and soundstage brought Hollywood’s biggest stars and directors to Tucson Mountain Park to shoot some of the finest western movies and television shows. In more recent years it served as a popular theme park and tourist attraction until a devastating fire destroyed much of its property and buildings.

Until the day Old Tucson prospers once more, those films and memories produced there will have to suffice for the countless fans who thrilled to its timeless cowboy movie magic.

In 1939, Old Tucson was built by Paramount Pictures as a temporary movie set for the shooting of Arizona starring Jean Arthur and William Holden. After a consistently impressive roster of westerns had been shot at the studio, including Winchester 73, Last Train From Gun Hill and 3:10 to Yuma, Old Tucson opened to the pubic in 1960.

Henceforth, fans could get a firsthand gander at how these genre films were created and what went into their unique process. During these bustling years when Old Tucson doubled as a working studio and theme park, it helped churn out western classics like Hombre(Paul Newman), El Dorado(John Wayne) and The Outlaw Josey Wales(Clint Eastwood). It also became the premier location of choice for nearly anything related to Tombstone, Arizona and the life of the notorious frontier marshal Wyatt Earp.

Another trademark feature of many Old Tucson westerns is the saguaro cacti, known for peppering the neighboring Sonoran Desert landscape.

As subsequent productions necessitated specialized buildings, the studios were expanded and improved upon, resulting in arrays of streets, saloons, banks, shops and hotels for producers and directors to freely choose from.

The carpenters and workers who initially built the first 50 buildings which formed the backdrop of Old Tucson Studios included people of the Tohono O’odham, an original tribe of the Sonoran Desert. 

The Flamingo Hotel, built in 1952, hosted multitudes of cast and crew members who participated in the studios’ productions. It later became a museum displaying countless movie posters and memorabilia from those same films. 

By 1959, restorations were required and it was during this period of reopening that the expansions occurred with the inclusion of a
theme park. Gaining its gradual status as a significant tourist site, Old Tucson would eventually attract 500,000 visitors a year. 

In 1968 the park was augmented by a 13,000-foot sound stage built for usage in the film Young Billy Young starring Robert Mitchum. 

Another feature of the park was a recurring gunfight reenactment with typical gunplay, fisticuffs and stunts performed live for enthusiastic crowds. One such exhibition is presented during a scene from Death Wish starring Charles Bronson, where a marshal and his deputies thwart a group of outlaws who are violently attempting to rob a bank.

Further expansion saw a train depot, antique automobile rides and an 1872 steam locomotive. With enthusiasm for the west and  westerns never in true decline, the vast Arizona sky seemed to be Old Tucson’s only limit. The studio and park continued to grow and improve on itself every year as it passed into legend itself.

All of that changed, however, in April of 1995 when a fire destroyed 40 of Old Tucson’s buildings costing $10 million dollars in damage. The devastating fire which was attributed to arson, forced the studios out of business for a two year hiatus during which time major renovations and rebuilding took place.

After reopening in 1997, the studios experienced an economic slump due to the national recession as well as a loss of state film funding.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an indefinite closing of Old Tucson and a county committee made up of tourism officials and movie industry executives currently plans to determine its future.

Hopeful that new prospects will come forward to take over Old Tucson’s lease, the committee projects a possible reopening in the fall. They are also in talks with the family of Robert Shelton who originally leased Old Tucson from Pima County in 1959 and reopened it as a refurbished studio and park.

Until a decisive deal goes through, it seems, ‘Hollywood in the Desert’ will be standing by, waiting for the stage line to barrel ‘round the corner, the batwing doors to swing open, the horses to trot through its dusty streets and the film crews to converge and set up their gear once again.

Happy New Year!

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

Be sure to visit THE TV WESTERN AND MOVIE FAN PAGE on Facebook!

   Please post a comment below!