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During its twentieth (and last) season "Gunsmoke" pulled out the stops
and had some of the show's best episodes, showcasing most of the cast
members. "Island in the Desert, Parts I and II" is centered around
Festus, played by Ken Curtis, as the deputy is in pursuit of a
murderous felon, superbly played by perennial villain William C.
Watson. Festus's quest takes him into the desert where he meets a
deranged prospector Ben Snow, played by the always dependable Strother
Martin. Snow has been in the desert for more than a decade, searching
for and acquiring a stash of gold, an accomplishment that he wants to
return to his old stomping ground, a town called Ten Strikes. Snow
wants to show his wealth to a former rival named Sam Bristol.
After being wounded by a bullet from the escaping criminal, Festus is cared for by Snow who later forces the deputy to serve as his "pack mule" to haul the gold through the desert toward Ten Strikes.
The pair must contend with the savage heat, Snow's frequent bits of paranoia, and the fact that Watson's character is still on the loose.
All of these are answered in the second installment that is just as riveting as the first.
Martin, Watson, and Curtis are good in their parts, with the former having a slight edge over the other two. Martin had a long career in Hollywood, with a long string of memorable roles, especially as the warden in Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke." "Ben Snow" became just another feather in a cap filled with performances to die for.
Another plus for the show is the impressive use of location, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona/Utah). Sprawling vistas and panoramic landscapes add to the fact that the characters are far from civilization and at the mercy of the environment.
Gunsmoke's Part One of "Island In The Desert" was the pinnacle of all
episodes during its twenty year run. Festus Haggin brought in a known
killer named Gard Dixon to Cottonwood for his hanging. The town -- in
its infinite wisdom -- was ready to see a killer be hung for
first-degree murder and robbery. Festus Haggen left the jail in hopes
of returning to Dodge City ... or so it seemed to him in the opening
part of the episode. Soon enough, Gard Dixon took a letter opener and
-- eventually -- stabbed the deputy to death; he then fired one round
from a gun and wounded the deputy to death ... thus starting the escape
to the desert. The town became shocked at his escape. Obviously, Gard
Dixon would likely flee to Mexico to avoid a hanging in Cottonwood.
Burke obtained a message from the telegraph office in Dodge City. Word came out that Gard Dixon escaped from Cottonwood; moreover, Matt Dillon and Newly O'Brien would be leaving Dodge City to find Festus Haggen ... and eventually track down a vicious animal named Gard Dixon. The acting sheriff in Cottonwood would tell Dillon and O'Brien that little or no signs of water or trees were present in an eighty- or ninety-mile trek into the desert.
Gard Dixon seriously wounded Festus Haggen during the chase. Haggen fell unconscious after being grazed by gunfire from Dixon's rifle. Ben Snow found Festus Haggen all alone in the blazing desert without any water. He took him into his cave. He used a mud mixture to Haggen's wound on his head. Haggen had been resting in Ben Snow's cave. All the while, Ben Snow had been living as a hermit. Festus Haggen was about to find Gard Dixon at first light.
Ben Snow had other plans for Festus Haggen. Ben Snow had intentions of heading to Ten Strike -- a once-thriving town in Arizona ... all while he was finding Gard Dixon. He forced Haggen to carry water like a pack mule. Ben Snow would eventually make Festus Haggen's life miserable during the trek. Haggen was fighting for survival against Ben Snow's tyrannical behavior. Ben Snow was more inclined to reach Ten Strike rather than aiding Festus Haggen in search for a ruthless killer in the desert. A Fat 18 Out Of 10!! A bigger-than-life episode from the 1974-1975 Television Season!!
I have to say that this entire episode (part 1 and 2) is perhaps the
best show in the entire collection of 'Gunsmoke'. The fine acting and
the way each line is delivered by the actors makes the viewer believe
that they are right in the middle of the story with a unique realism
not experienced many times.
In this first part episode, Festus is on the path of an escaped convict named Gard Dixon in the arid desert outside of Cottonwood. When Festus is ambushed by the convict, Festus lays in the arid desert with no hope of survival.
However, Festus is found by a man named Ben Snow (Strother Martin). Ben Snow has been in the desert for a very long time. Oh, not by his choice but by a bad situation. Ben and a friend was looking for gold and they got caught up in a sandstorm. After six days the storm passed and Ben found himself all alone. During the this time Ben found a large amount of gold and has been wanting to find a way out of the desert for a long time.
Ben takes Festus back to his area where water is found and helps him get back to health. During his recovery, Festus sees sign that Ben has some serious psychotic behavior issues. Ben carries on conversations with snakes and keeps talking about this town named Ten Strike that is full of people and pretty girls. Ben also wants to find a formal rival of his named Sam Bristol in the town of Ten Strike so that he can show Sam that he is now rich.
Festus is forced to carry water like an pack mule while the delusional Ben Snow holds him at gunpoint. So the first episode ends with the two heading to Ten Strike.
Strother Martin is brilliant in this show playing the crazed Ben Snow that wants nothing but to see Sam Bristol. Some of the best acting I have seen in a long time. Ready for Part 2.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm writing this review partly because I couldn't resist the obvious
Summary. Hopefully, the editors at IMDb will have the sense to toss out
the whole thing.
"Gunsmoke"'s last season has several two-part episodes, and though they're a bit on the "flabby" side (80-minute stories stretched to 100 minutes), they're still far better than your average oater. Typically for "Gunsmoke", the focus is on character interaction, not violence. (One cringes at the thought of what "Bonanza" or "The Big Valley" would have done with the same idea.) We know Festus isn't going to die, * but otherwise, as befits a good script, there are unexpected but plausible twists and turns. The ending is tragic and bitterly ironic (reminiscent of a classic movie that will not be named here).
Though Festus is principally a comic character, he's never treated as a fool or buffoon. He has occasional serious moments, and this episode (and the concluding part) show Ken Curtis at his acting peak.
Strother Martin (which should explain the Summary joke) has a largely one-dimensional role as a crazed man who's spent over a decade in the desert (having gotten totally disoriented during a sandstorm). At least he has the sense to eat cactus apples to avoid scurvy. There isn't much you can do with it, and (in my opinion) Martin goes a bit overboard.
One has to admire everyone for their willingness to shoot these episodes in the wild -- particularly those who had to cover the tracks of the trucks and technicians. It could not have been a pleasant experience. The outstanding dried-and-cracked-lips makeup also must be noted.
* The producers didn't know CBS would abruptly cancel the series. Had they known, they might have killed off a principal character or two.
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