Gunsmoke: Digging Deeper into Marshall Dillon and Kitty Russell

As an Old-Western drama, nothing beats Gunsmoke when it comes to hard-boiled realism and sophisticated writing, and part of it can be attributed to the strong characterization of its two protagonists, Marshall Matt Dillon and the ever fascinating Kitty Russell.

The nature of the relationship between these two characters always led to a whole gamut of speculations. These two enigmatic characters have a dichotomy that caused a lot of long-time fans to engage in never ending bouts of tongue-wagging.

For Marshall Matt Dillon, a big source of the ever growing dissent as to how the character should be perceived is the difference in portrayal between the radio version and the TV show version. Of course, there are no strict rules as to which one should be considered as canon given the fact that most of the episodes were made with the approval of the show’s main writer, John Weston. In the radio show version, Marshall Matt Dillon is, for the lack of a better term, a psychopath. Yes, he deals his brand of justice with an iron fist, not to mention with a quick draw of his gun.

But perhaps it would be fairer to judge the character on the basis of – or with at least some consideration of – what it was like during the era of the Wild, Wild West. Given the fact that Gunsmoke has major emphasis on realism, the way with which Matt Dillon exacts justice is perfectly justified. Crime and punishment are two opposites of the pole during the time of the Old West, and synergy between the two can only be made possible through the hard language of violence.

The crimes are brutal and they should be met with punishments that are just as brutal. Marshall Matt Dillon, with his imposing physique and skills in drawing guns, is the perfect herald of the ‘serving justice with extreme prejudice’ approach.

But then the TV show version of Gunsmoke “mucked it all up” by giving Marshall Matt Dillon a sense of restraint. At least, that’s the case with the latter half of the season. The Matt Dillon from the TV show was more inclined to ask questions first but who has no qualms in using violence if there’s never any doubt as to who the culprits of a crime were.

Another interesting speculation made by long-time fans through the years is the implication that Kitty Russell, on top of being a saloon hostess, part-time owner, and eventual main owner of the Long Branch Saloon, is in actuality a prostitute. This aspect of Kitty Russell’s character was more apparent in the radio show.

The TV show didn’t imply such, as was expected. But if we take into consideration again the era of the Old West, saloon hostesses are more often than not treated as “whores.” It’s their lot in life, and going by the modern vernacular, one could say that it just comes with the territory.

Long-time fans could speculate all they want, but comparing the two versions of the show and taking into account the era that was portrayed can give the characters a whole new dimension and perhaps, give us a more layered enjoyment of the show as a whole.


  1. JonchaTexas says:

    The change in Matt Dillon’s approach came as a result of a campaign against violence on TV in the late 1950s or early 1960s. What I would like to have seen is more of how bad guys were actually treated in the West. There usually wasn’t a fast-draw champion like Matt around. What would happen is that deputized citizens would just ambush the bad guy(s) and that was that.

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