Legendary film maker Sam Peckinpah cut his teeth as a writer penning almost a dozen half-hour episodes of Gunsmoke during the show’s 1955-1956 seasons. These stories show up regularly on the Encore Western channel. Most of them are based on radio scripts written by John Meston, but everyone one of them show the unmistakable Peckinpah touch. His Gunsmoke tales all have a hard-bitten realistic quality to them and feature the themes he wrote about throughout his career. The stories portray older men facing changing times, women of easy virtue, men who live by their guns, and the themes of loyalty and friendship.
“Dirt” for instance featured guest star Wayne Morris, as Nat Siebert, a rancher in his fifties, about to get married to a woman from a proper Southern family. He buys drinks for everyone in the Long Branch to celebrate and in walks Beulah (June Lockhart), the town tramp. It’s obvious she and Nat have more than a passing acquaintance, and she’s shattered when she discovers his wedding plans. She leaves, the sound of the derisive laughter from some of the men following her. The plot complication comes from the brother of the bride-to-be who says he’ll kill Siebert for disgracing his sister through his association with Beulah.
Sure enough Siebert is shot and wounded and there’s a touching scene when Matt pays Beulah a visit and she explains how she “cared for that man.” He was the only one who didn’t treat me like dirt.” It’s not immediately clear who shot Siebert, and there are several unique twists before the conclusion.
In “The Roundup,” Matt Dillon has to face a cattle drive coming to Dodge without the help of Chester (Dennis Weaver). Zel (Michael Hinn) a former lawman/outlaw and an old friend of Matt’s arrives and offers his help. Probably based on the famous Wild Bill Hickock incident, Matt accidentally kills Zel. The aftermath as Matt shuts Front Street down reveals Peckinpah’s flair for depicting justified violence. It’s memorable. The final coda shows Matt notching his gun. Zel said earlier he didn’t think much of a man who would notch his killings that way. Matt shows Chester his gun and grimly tells him, “This one’s for Zel.”
In “Poor Pearl”Willie Calhoun ( Denver Pile) wants to marry one of the Long Branch girls (Constance Ford) but her on and off boyfriend, Webb Thorne, a gambler/gunman, disrupts his plans. Willie can’t reconcile himself to losing his gal and goes out to the house where she and Webb are living and shoots through the window. He thinks he’s killed Webb but it becomes Matt’s sad duty to go out to Willie’s place and arrest him for accidentally killing Pearl. The episode ends with an uncompromising look at Willie’s quiet devastation as he’s left a man with nothing to live for.
Other memorable stories scripted by Peckinpah (sometimes under the name of David S. Peckinpah), include “The Guitar,” “The Queue,” and “How to Kill a Woman,” which includes Pernell Roberts in the cast. But in fact all 11 of the Peckinpah shows are worth watching. If you don’t have the patience to wait until they show up on the Western channel, the Gunsmoke series is available on DVD.