On the “Lonesome Dove” Phenomenon


Tribute today to Larry McMurtry (b. 1936), author of many a literary and cinematic success, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and even (with collaborators) Brokeback Mountain. 

Today we talk about the avalanche of repercussions spawned by his Pulitzer Prize winning 1985 novel Lonesome Dove.  I consider Lonesome Dove a pivotal phenomenon, almost singlehandly reviving what was at the time a near-moribund genre. In film and television by the mid 1970s the western was on its last legs. Over the next decade it was for all intents and purposes dead (or to be more accurate, in a very long coma). But 1985 was a very big year, seeing Clint Eastwood’s return to the genre after almost a decade with Pale Rider, as well as Lawrence Kazdan’s much-ballyhooed all-star Silverado. And the McMurtry bestseller, which immediately seemed to be on everyone’s bookshelves.

Lonesome Dove is an epic of Americana in the tradition of Gone with the Wind or the novels of Edna Ferber, but with male heroes. There is a commercial savvy and a smartness to the writing, but it is definitely a populist product. It’s not perfect. Here and there a sentence or a line will strike you as downright unfortunate. But in the tradition of the best popular entertainment, the overall thing is so well-conceived and impressive that you forgive it.

At its simplest, Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive, and as we saw in Howard Hawk’s Red River, the cattle drive lends itself admirably to the form of the epic. The one in question goes so far as to resemble a Greek epic…for along the journey its heroes are beset by many natural events that seem symbolic — existential — in their import. Lonesome Dove, the name of a fictional town in Texas, is like the Ithaca of the Odyssey. It is the home these aging men long to get back to after their wearying adventures.

Lonesome Dove was initially conceived as a screenplay for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, to have been directed by Peter Bogdanovich (who directed The Last Picture Show). That such a thing never came to pass is one of the great losses of the ages! Yet the fact that it didn’t was probably the salvation of it. Rather than being some valedictory film in which we said adios to the original period of movie westerns (like The Shootist or something), Lonesome Dove became something forward looking. It made it okay for producers to start telling western stories again, a process that continues to this day.


In 1989, the publishing phenomenon became a television phenomenon when the book was adapted into a four-part mini-series for CBS. The mini-series was very faithful to the novel. A fine teleplay (adapted by McMurtry himself, with William D. Wittliff) with lots of great performances by its all-star cast, and nice art direction, which is important for a western but rare for tv. Typical workmanlike tv direction and cinematography prevents it from being any kind of “movie” in its own right—the Netflix description compares it to the masterpieces of John Ford but that’s hogwash only a blind man would sign off on. Still, its great fun to watch the actors, who are clearly relishing this project.

Robert Duvall is Gus McCrae, the talkative, sensitive (but tough) former Texas Ranger; Tommy Lee Jones is Captain Call, his taciturn but decent partner. It’s actually an amazing cast for a tv project; only a couple of schlocky choices mar the ensemble (Robert Urich as Jake Spoon; Rick Schoeder as young Newt; and D.B. Sweeney as the top hand Dish spring to mind). But the rest of the principals are top flight. Danny Glover plays Deets. Chris Cooper is the Arkansas sheriff July Johnson and Barry Corbin (the astronaut from Northern Exposure) is his deputy. Steve Buscemi is even in it as a disgusting muleskinner who helps transport his escaping wife (Glenn Headly) as she goes to rejoin her outlaw previous husband. William Sanderson (the guy who played Farnum in Deadwood) is the piano player from the saloon. Angelica Huston is Clara, the love of McCrae’s life; Diane Lane is Lorie, the former prostitute, his current lover. Frederick Forest plays the villainous comanchero Blue Duck (okay, that’s not too progressive).

Lonesome Dove has plenty of fantasy touches: McCrae and Call seem superhuman at times; and there are many coincidences of timetable and geography. But it is also marked by greater realism than in old time western novels. For example, the heroes are former Texas Rangers, but they kick off this adventure by stealing a herd of horses and a herd of cows. Later in the story they make a great point of hanging horse thieves, even their friend. And yet there is a sense to all of it. Historically, the herds were all semi-feral once, and then simply rounded up—and then rustled and then re-rustled so many times who can say who they really belong to? Add to this, the man they steal from is some sort of Mexican bad guy, an old nemesis of theirs. (Mexicans get a bum deal in this story. In addition to the cattle baron, who dies before we meet him, we meet three others—all cooks or servants). On the other hand, the horse thieves our heroes like to hang are the highway robbing type. It’s one thing to make off with some of the wealth of a rich and powerful man. It’s another degree of lowness to steal the transportation from some traveler in a remote and dangerous place, either leaving him vulnerable or killing him outright.

I call this type of tale “the laissez faire western” — a post 1970s excursion into the genre that doesn’t work overtime to make a political statement about racism, imperialism, sexism, genocide, etc etc etc (as had become common in Hollywood since the late ’60s, e,g. Little Big Man, Kung Fu, etc). The laissez-faire western is franker in its treatment of sex and violence and it is a good deal more racially sensitive than such movies had been in the past. But it possesses no obvious overarching political agenda. Yet I begin to wonder if I don’t agree with the left that “no stance” is its own stance. Is not condemning certain behaviors an endorsement of them? I ask it rhetorically.


Return to Lonesome Dove (1993 )

A TV sequel, done without McMurtry’s involvement. Jon Voight plays Capt. Call, the Tommy Lee Jones part; Barbara Hershey the Angelica Huston role. This one seems a bit of an attempt to compensate for the qualities I was just describing. Here, Capt. Call hires a Jew and several African Americans, Mexicans and women to bring a group of horses back to his Montana ranch after burying Gus in Lonesome Dove. Louis Gossett Jr is the top hand. Nia Peebles is Gus’s angry, gorgeous illegitimate Mexican daughter whom no one knew existed (and later gets instantly raped by some white soldiers). After being attacked by one group of warlike  Indians, Call is then healed by another group of tender, peace-loving Indians and given an Indian squaw for his own. The character of Newt (still Schroeder) takes up with head of local cattleman’s association (Oliver Reed) and romances his young wife (Reese Witherspoon). Call’s outfit defies them.

While using some scenes from the novel that hadn’t made it into the Lonesome Dove miniseries, the sequel overall is a more conventional story, lacking the Quixote-and-Sancho magic of the first original (which is probably why they keep referring to the deceased Gus so often). With some exceptions for the most part one feels one has seen all the scenes and plot points in other movies. It drags on and on and is full of cringe-inducing on the nose exposition dialogue. McMurtry did not collaborate on this show.

A highlight of the show is an extremely well done prairie fire. One of the best fires I’ve ever seen staged in a film.


Lonesome Dove: The Series (1994-1995)

This season long series focused on the character Newt (now played by Scott Bairstow) and is set in Wyoming. It has drifted quite far from the original magic.


The Streets of Laredo (1995)

Some of the mojo is recaptured in this mini-series, adapted from McMurtry’s second novel in the Lonesome Series, which came out in 1993. It is set some 20 years after the events of Lonesome Dove. With another all-star cast: James Garner as Captain Call, with Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard as his friends Lorena and Pea Eye, Ned Beatty as Judge Roy Bean, Randy Quaid as John Wesley Harding, and also Charles Martin Smith, George Carlin(!), Wes Studi, etc.

Garner is great in the former Tommy Lee Jones role, which is ironic – with his natural affable manner he’d have been a more natural choice for Gus McCrae, but he’s terrific in this rare effort against type, taciturn, closed mouthed and by nature a little mean. I never dreamed he had this gear in him. In this story, Captain Call is hired by a railroad to bring in a a psychotic sniper youth who has been killing people from a distance – an interesting idea. Charles Martin Smith is of course the dude in a derby from back east, representing the railroad. Shepard’s Pea Eye is a family man whose dilemma is whether to ride with Call or stay home with his family. (Spacek is his nagging wife, a schoolteacher). The villain (Alexis Cruz) is great – a Mexican teenager with very light brown hair, who lives with his mother in a village just over the border. He hates Yanquis. (Carlin plays his mother’s drunken consort). The kid is psychotic, kills whoever irritates him.  It’s roughly as good as the first series, which is quite good indeed.


Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years (1995-1996)

Another tv mini-series, this one set two years after Lonesome Dove left off. It has no stars in it – I found myself barely able to even put the DVD into the player. I watched only a few minutes before boredom had me reaching for my six guns.  If there is some compelling need to watch it in future, I will.


Dead Man’s Walk (1996)

Based on the third novel in the series, which had come out in 1995. An interesting prequel, set some 30 years before the events of Lonesome Dove, detailing the earliest adventures of Gus (David Arquette) and Call (Jonny Lee Miller) as Texas Rangers. An Indian battle at the beginning turns out to be merely a prelude. The bulk of the movie concerns the boys’ decision to join a disastrous excursion to seize Santa Fe for Texas, led by a perfectly cast F. Murray Abraham. When they fail, they are forced to make the titular death march by their captors (a sort of Mexican Bataan) and then gamble for their own lives. By the end, they are among a tiny handful of survivors. Also in the cast Harry Dean Stanton, Keith Carradine, Tim Blake Nelson, Patricia Childress, Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Garner and Gretchen Mol. 


Comanche Moon (2008)

Another prequel, this one based on the fourth and last novel in the series (published in 1997) and set in the period between Dead Man’s Walk and Lonesome Dove.  The affable Steve Zahn is Gus; Karl Urban is Call. A particular saving grace is the lovely Linda Cardellini as Clara. It’s 1858, many years before the events of Lonesome Dove. The men ride with one Captain Scull, a colorful character played by Val Kilmer with  his usual over-the-top preposterousness, with a top hat, mustache, and so forth. he plays it way too broadly. For most of the show he’s away in Mexico. Through the series they chase three separate Indian outlaws: Kicking Wolf (Jonathan Joss), Buffalo Hump (still Wes Studi) and Blue Duck (Adam Beach). The costumes are pretty good, and McMurtry’s dialogue is always a pleasure to listen to. But the way it’s shot is stodgy and perfunctory, might as well be 1998 as 2008. Our standards for tv production quality have risen through the roof in recent years, in case you haven’t noticed. We have been spoiled by some truly excellent television, so much so, that excellence has become commonplace.

Okay, but now a lot of years have passed, and you know how it goes in show business nowadays: when’s the reboot? I’d ride all the way across Texas to see it!


    • Agreed. And I thought highly of Schoeder as Newt as well. It’s too bad the Return had so many replacement actors. Voight and Hershey are notable, but it lost something with main characters being replaced.


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