Gunsmoke And The Rifleman
May 19, 2008
By Bruce Walker
My wife and I find almost nothing to watch on television. Even Fox News is repetitive, covering the same stories that are easily available on the Internet in greater depth over and over again. The political correctness that permeates all contemporary shows is just plain offensive. The silliness of other new programming makes Romper Room seem sophisticated. Perhaps, most of all, it is the self-absorption of the endless stream of models, pretty boys, and celebrities that makes watching most television less interesting than watching paint dry on walls.
Worst, perhaps, are the risible crime shows - CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case and the rest. I attended recently a meeting of forensic criminologists who are at the forefront of many new technologies. They all loath these shows for the pseudo-science pompously portrayed as real. I feel the same, although more because the culprit can be predicted with the ease that a German could have predicted the culprit (the Eternal Jew) in a Nazi propaganda film.
Even documentaries, especially on The History Channel, are so poorly researched that I must question almost every "fact" disclosed (historical maps of Europe in the 1930s routinely show, instead, Germany today or, even worse, West Germany before reunification.) The timing of salient events is often ignored or simply misstated. Decades of indifference to objective truth shows.
We have come to love two old programs, however: Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Does this sound strange? Cowboy shows four or five decades old are superior to all the highly paid producers, writers and actors of today? Indeed - much superior. These and other old western shows are exaggerated, of course. Gunfights were rare in the Old West. Most people were busy scratching out a living from the land. Although these westerns might be seen as a commercial for the NRA, that is not the appeal.
Gunsmoke and the Rifleman (as well as Bonanza and several others) quietly proclaim certain virtues that we have lost in modern culture. The great value of friends and family as the basis of a decent society are stated in a hundred different ways. The importance of personal integrity is a constant theme. Self-reliance is also prominent in nearly every episode.
But these westerns are not afraid to challenge authority (the government) when it is manifestly immoral. Following the spirit of the law, not the letter, is important. Those issues we have come to call "social justice" (in the original and best sense of the word) also pop up. Native Americans are treated as human beings, and this was long before AIM or any other activism. Blacks are also treated with great respect, and this was before the Civil Rights Movement. Although women are treated as ladies by the good guys, the strength of frontier women - and they were strong in every way - is nearly always present.
Comedies forty and fifty years ago had several of the same virtues. Meanness and bitterness do not exist in I Love Lucy, My Three Sons or The Donna Reed Show. But westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman rise above those wonderful comedies and bring into their stories bigger values. Death, for example, is nearly always present in these westerns, but not death without purpose. Not only is death present, but fighting and killing is present as well. Defending our society from evil, defending our families from bad men, defending honor from dishonor - all these are staples of westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman.
But when my wife and I watch Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, there is something else that is stunning, something that I completely missed when I was watching these programs as a child. The contrast between Gunsmoke and The Rifleman and all modern entertainment today is breathtakingly stark in this area. God is very present in Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Religion is very present in these two programs. People say grace before meals. People quote scripture, just as those scripture were a living part of their lives. There are churches and in those churches there are parishioners and pastors.
The actions and the words of actors in those two series are surrounded by the context of Judeo-Christian morality. Sometimes the programs have charlatans and fanatics, but by and large serious religious devotion is played out as an ordinary, expected and natural part of life in the Old West. This faith is not the bigoted, narrow-minded and ignorant "faith" which is all that Hollywood sees in people of faith today, but sensible faith. Does this sound far fetched? Watch those two programs for a week. You will see just how far God has been driven from our lives today, and how present He was forty years ago.