James Arness in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987)

A Matter of Life and Death

Heading back to his home in the hills, former marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) finds himself face to face with Logan (Frank Totino) who is yet another man who has tracked him down looking for revenge after being sent to prison by the ex lawman. After Matt ends up being stuck by a blade and sent down the river in his canoe he is found and taken to town where old friend Kitty (Amanda Blake) helps nurse him back to help. But gunslinger Will Mannon (Steve Forrest) having just been released on parole is also out to find Dillon and get revenge on him as well as the judge who put him inside. It leads to Matt's old friend Jake Flagg (Earl Holliman) breaking out of prison to try and get to him first to warn him of Mannon's plans. Things become more complicated when a prison warden is killed and Flagg is accused leading to Lt. Dexter (Ken Olandt) trying to find Flagg which means Matt needs to save his old friend as well.

I will put my hand up straight away, not because I have a lawman's gun pointed at me but because I have never watched a single episode of "Gunsmoke". It isn't something I intentionally did but it just happens the old western series which ran from the 50s in to the 70s was never shown on TV in the UK when I was growing up. As such I watched "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge", the first of 5 TV movies which started in the late 80s having never seen James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon before or any of the other characters who return in this.

Amanda Blake in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987)

And it is an important point because I don't know how well "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" compares to the original TV series and have no sentimental or nostalgic connection to the characters so don't get that sense of joy which comes from seeing Amanda Blake as Kitty again. Maybe if I did this rather later TV movie would have entertained me more because truth be told I found it a mix of the routine and the awkward with a storyline which could have come out of an old episode of the series or any other old western show such as "Cimarron Strip".

But it is the awkward which really got to me because James Arness sadly came across as incredibly awkward from start to finish. The way he looks make it look like the make-up team had turned him in to some sort of waxwork whilst the staged nature of his movement when it came to action not only contributed to that waxwork look but didn't compare well to others who seem in much better shape when it came to the action.

What this all boils down to is that I can appreciate how those who grew up watching "Gunsmoke" would enjoy "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" as a catch up with some old friends. But at the same time I could also understand anyone's disappointment in "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" as whilst it is an entertaining western distraction it is nothing special and in truth has some issues including some of the actors who hadn't aged well when they made this looking awkward as they try to recapture the way they use to be.