Starring on “Gunsmoke,” James Arness, as Matt Dillon, was known to get into a fistfight or a gunfight every now and then. But the actor criticized the quota system used for determining TV violence back then.
Television shows were a lot tamer back in the “Gunsmoke” era than they are nowadays. Late-night cable hadn’t been invented. And shows like “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” hadn’t assaulted the senses with a smorgasbord of blood, gore, and sex.
In a 1978 New York Times interview, Arness rallied against the “quota system” of the era. Censors only allowed a certain amount of gunfights or brawls in each episode. The actor believed it made his job difficult as a result. Filming westerns like “Gunsmoke” required a certain amount of violence in Arness’s opinion. He described quota systems as “ludicrous.”
“These censors say you can hit so many guys, throw so many punches, fire x number of shots—they count them,” Arness told the outlet. “They base it on the quality of violence, not on the way it is handled. It’s ridiculous. I don’t think some of these censors are really qualified to judge, because they are not story people. It’s not their forte.”
James Arness Discussed Violence in Good Taste
James Arness believed there was a difference between using violence to tell a story and for shock value. But the censors of the era failed to properly judge that value under the given system. Though he may have been biased, Arness believed westerns like “Gunsmoke” used violence as a storytelling tactic.
“They couldn’t give you a valid judgment whether a certain act of violence is really necessary to tell a story or whether it is thrown in for shock value. You need violence in a Western. Without it, it’s phony. How the hell can you win the West without having a little violence?” Arness continued.
But the actor also confessed that some TV shows of the era had started to go overboard on violence. He believed it made it harder for other shows like “Gunsmoke.”
“Producers scream and holler about their right to do whatever they want without censorship, but they also have to assume a certain responsibility,” Arness said. “A lot of guys abuse that right and do stuff in poor taste and thereby hurt all the rest of us who can deal with violence in good taste.”
Over time, censors would relax some of their standards on violence. The creation of cable television and then streaming gave rise to new standards. Arness may have been shocked at how violent some programming is today. Take the western “Deadwood” for instance, which aired in the early 2000s.