Lonesome Dove, based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel -- also an all-timer and one of my favorites -- from author Larry McMurtry. Aired over four nights, the miniseries pulled in crazy ratings, better reviews, and rave reviews for its cast. It deserves every positive thing it got. It is a true classic, and regardless of its TV roots, one of the best westerns of all-time.
Along the Rio Grande River in the town of Lonesome Dove in south Texas, former Texas Rangers Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) own the Hat Creek Company, working as cattle buyers and sellers, selling an occasional horse but nothing too lucrative. After creating quite a name for themselves as Rangers when all of Texas was still a wilderness, the duo has drifted into obscurity some. They're pleasantly surprised when a good friend from their past and a former ranger himself, Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), rides into Lonesome Dove telling them how beautiful and untouched the Montana territory far to the north is. Call gets the idea in his head to put together a herd of cattle and drive them all the way to the territory, starting up the first cattle ranch in Montana. Gus and several of their men are wary but go along with it. The veteran Rangers have their reasons for going -- both very different -- but no one involved has any real idea what awaits them on the trail.
It's impossible to condense a 900-plus page novel and a four-part miniseries running 384 minutes into one concise paragraph explaining the plot. Expanding a little, the two Rangers drive a cattle herd from south Texas to Montana, experiencing all the good, bad, dangerous and terrifying that the trail has to offer. Without getting too cheesy/flowery, it's about friendship, love, betrayal, pride, loyalty and on the biggest level, the changing times in the west, seen through the eyes of old and young men alike. There is a subplot I've lost interest in over the years and repeated viewings/readings, but Lonesome Dove is as perfect a movie as I've ever seen. I highly recommend the novel too if you're a reader looking for a good book.
Director Simon Wincer does an admirable job bringing McMurtry's novel to life. Decisions that are made to streamline the story excise non-essential characters, scenes and explanation to make a four-part miniseries into a miniseries running longer than six hours that flies by. The filming locations are perfect, helping set up the passage of time with cinematographer Dean Semler turning in a beautiful-looking story. A TV miniseries might seem limiting, but the visual scope and beauty here is a huge selling point. Throw in a sweeping, emotionally perfect score (listen HERE) from composer Basil Poledouris, and you've got all the makings of a halfway decent story!
What sets 'Lonesome' apart I've always felt is its ability to mix the romance of the wild west with the realism of the wild west. There's something straightforward and iconic about the visual of a cowboy on horseback trailing along with a cattle herd against the horizon. There's something simple about it that is able to permeate itself through a ton of westerns, good and bad. A man on his horse, doing a job that isn't easy and ready to fight off whatever comes at the herd because it's his job. The counter? There was nothing romantic about it no matter what you may want to think. It was back-breaking work, and death comes cheap (as it's said several times) to those who aren't careful and even to those who are. It doesn't take much for the winds to shift from good to bad. Straddling that line, 'Lonesome' is a somber, moving story that has the ability to tear your guts up through good and bad. It's the rare western with that ability.
Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. That's it. That's all. I could leave it at that and be good, but that'd make for a short review, wouldn't it? Both men have had remarkable careers, but I don't believe either has ever (EVER!!!) been better than they were here. Duvall's Gus is fast-talking, loves some whiskey and good biscuits, a ladies man, and an all-timer at avoiding work. Jones' Call is a man of few words, ridiculously stubborn, hard-working to a fault, and lives by a code. A true Odd Couple-esque dynamic, these are phenomenal performances. They play off each other with ease. Their dialogue crackles with energy whether it be two friends busting each other, two partners figuring out how to solve a problem, or two longtime friends having a rare heart-to-heart in a trying moment. Both are amazingly excellent, but Duvall is on another level here as Gus. His energy, his non-stop talking, his physical mannerisms from a quick smirk to sucking his lips to his unique walk...my goodness, Gus McCrae is one of the all-time best western characters. Robert Duvall is the freaking man.
Though there are many characters in the miniseries, the heart of the story is Gus and Call's Hat Creek outfit and their motley crew of cowboys. Danny Glover is a quiet scene-stealer as Josh Deets, the outfit's tracker and scout, a fiercely capable worker and fighter who never complains, just putting his head down and getting the job done. Rick Schroder is excellent as Newt, a young, inexperienced 17-year old cowboy orphaned years before and picked up and cared for by the Hat Creek outfit. Tim Scott plays Pea Eye, a well-meaning but not so intelligent former Ranger. And last, there's unofficial member Dish Boggett, played by D.B. Sweeney, a more than capable cowboy who finds a niche with the group. There's a bond, a camaraderie amongst the crew that feels natural and real, not actors, but real people and their relationships. It is the rare western where you can say that.
You could write a thesis paper about individual characters here, making my job reviewing the miniseries a tough one! Diane Lane doesn't deserved to get buried so far down in a review, but here we sit. Her Lorena Wood, a beautiful young prostitute who finds herself on the trail with the herd, is a fascinating character to watch grow and develop. Her chemistry with Duvall is impeccable too. Anjelica Houston plays Clara, a past love (and maybe currently) of Gus', married and with children on a horse ranch in Nebraska. Frederic Forrest is frightening as Blue Duck, a half-breed bandit who's rampaged all over Texas for years, all the while out of the reach of our Rangers. I also especially liked Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as Po Campo, the cook traveling with the herd.
If there is a weak point in 'Lonesome,' it is a subplot involving an Arkansas sheriff, July Johnson (Chris Cooper), trailing Jake Spoon only to find out his wife (Glenne Headly) has left him. This subplot also features Barry Corbin, Steve Buscemi, and Frederick Coffin. I just don't find myself drawn to the characters here and as a result, their portions of the story tend to drag.
This is a movie that deserves a big old, long review full of in-depth analysis, more than I've got the space for here. I easily could write a college paper about this McMurtry novel! I also don't want to give away too much here with my review, recommending you go into the miniseries with a clean slate. I'll say this instead. There are moments that are absolutely heartbreaking, truly gut-wrenching, whether it be a surprising/shocking death to a face-to-face where you're begging something to happen. Both watching the miniseries and reading McMurtry's novel, I've cried and we're talking real, big crocodile tears. It's a classic movie -- screw the miniseries moniker -- and required viewing for anyone who loves good characters, story and scope regardless of your feelings on the western genre.
Interesting tidbit? McMurtry originally wrote the basic idea as a movie with John Wayne (Call), Jimmy Stewart (Gus) and Henry Fonda (Jake) leading the cast only to see it fall apart because of scheduling conflicts. Can you imagine that? If you're looking to kill a couple hours, see if you can fill out the rest of the cast with actors working in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I have, and let me tell you, it's tough. In the meantime, check Lonesome Dove out.
Lonesome Dove (1989): ****/****