Arness climbs back into saddle to track down murdering cattle thieves


October 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's not Dodge City. None of the original cast is on hand except for Matt Dillon. And he's not even wearing a badge.

But "Gunsmoke III" -- the latest sequel to the landmark western series, scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 11 -- is a good, hard ride through the west of myth, symbol and shared memory. The camera cleaves to the craggy, iconic features of James Arness from the opening scene and uses that image to deliver the same goods as the original "Gunsmoke" series: the story of a hard and good man bringing law and order to a hard and bad land.

The film opens near Tombstone, Ariz., at a graveside service where Matt's wife is being buried. The camera closes in on Dillon and his daughter (Amy Stock-Poynton), dressed in black. Then it pans back to show us the settlers standing in the dust on that empty plain. It is the image many of us carry in our minds of the American frontier: brave settlers burying their dead and moving on. There are several moments like that in "Gunsmoke III"; they are what make it worthwhile.

The plot itself is not so worthwhile. Dillon is retired "from marshallin' " and now owns a small ranch. The day after his wife's burial, some of his cattle are stolen and two of his friends killed, so Matt goes "a-lookin' for 'em." About 18 dead bodies later, Matt's got the cows back and all is right in the valley.

There is, obviously, lots of violence. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with Sam Peckinpah being a 10), I'd give it a 7. Also, I can't remember seeing anyone wearing heavier makeup than the 68-year-old Arness wears for this film. At times, it makes him look a bit like a cadaver. At other times though, when the dust cakes in the excess makeup, it enhances the old-lawman-forced-to-shoot-it-out theme nicely. Think Rooster Cogburn.

("Gunsmoke III" will be pre-empted if the World Series, which CBS is televising, goes to seven games. The film would then be rescheduled, possibly later in the week.)

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