Larry McMurtry (one of my all-time favorite books) in 1985 and turned into a wildly successful TV miniseries in 1989, Lonesome Dove is one of the all-time greats. Great characters, story, scope and scale, it has few rivals in the canon of miniseries. Some four years later in 1993 an unofficial sequel, Return to Lonesome Dove, was released, one McMurtry supposedly hated to the point he altered his official sequel like he was thumbing his nose. Oh, this should be good.
Having completed his mission for his friend, Gus, back in Texas, former Texas Ranger Woodrow Call (Jon Voight) undertakes another daring, almost impossible task. With his cattle ranch back in Montana focusing on the cattle herd, Call intends to drive a herd of mustangs north, breeding the horses with the best animal stock he can find. With help from another former Texas Ranger, Gideon Walker (William Petersen), and a veteran cowboy, Isom Pickett (Louis Gossett Jr.), Call readies a herd. Back in Montana at the Hat Creek ranch, Newt Dobbs (Rick Schroder) is doing his best to keep the ranch going. When he receives a telegram from Call, he heads south to meet with Clara Allen (Barbara Hershey) at her ranch. What awaits them all will not come easy as rustlers, outlaws, range wars and even good old-fashioned greed rear their ugly head.
First off, this 1993 sequel isn't Lonesome Dove. No miniseries could replicate the original's success on basically every single level. To be fair, the original didn't need a sequel of any sort, but here we sit. McMurtry wrote an official sequel to Lonesome Dove the same year as this TV follow-up, Streets of Laredo, that was apparently the author's less than pleased response to this miniseries. He hated it and ended up writing a book that seemed needlessly hateful, even spiteful, in wiping out characters, making some characters make ridiculous jumps that were based in no reality whatsoever. I read the book (and watched that miniseries) because I loved the characters. It was a disappointing, unnecessary follow-up. Did McMurtry think this 1993 series was just a chance for some easy money for a studio and TV? Maybe, but you know what else? It works in a big way.
Let me say it again. This isn't Lonesome Dove. What is it then? Fans of the 1989 miniseries shouldn't be disappointed. I came away very impressed and ended up loving it. It is a well-written, well-acted story that picks up logically where the story left off. My biggest concern was 'What's the point?' The characters didn't necessarily need more resolution. My worries were unfounded. Director Mike Robe and script writer John Wilder -- for lack of a better description -- do the characters right. They do the story right. It has it all; action, romance, sweep and scale to boot. While it's a personal story that succeeds because we like the characters, it's also a big, sweeping story about the taming of the west. It wasn't easy, and people died in the process (good and bad people alike). A couple different things aid the success here. 'Return' was filmed in Montana and Texas, and it is a beautiful miniseries to watch from beginning to end. The biggest thing though is composer Ken Thorne "tweaking" of the score from the original by Basil Poledouris. That music is like another character being transitioned from one miniseries to the next. Listen to a sample of the music HERE.
The actor with the biggest shoes to fill here is without question Jon Voight, replacing Tommy Lee Jones in a career-best performance as Woodrow Call. This is a tremendously layered character, one who can be infuriating to watch one second, and the next you can't help but feel for him. Strong, resolute, and living by a personal code of honor, Call expects others to do the same....and is typically disappointed by them. I was suspicious of the Voight casting, and early on, I wasn't a huge fan. But as the movie goes along, I grew to like the performance more and more. I came away vastly impressed with what Voight was able to do, making the character his own. Replacing Angelica Houston, Hershey too does an admirable job as Clara Allen, the tough as nails horse trader living near Ogallala, Nebraska who has to deal with all sorts of history with Woodrow. Two pairs of big shoes to fill, but both actors fill them admirably.
I thought the best thing going for this miniseries though was the return of Rick Schroeder to play young cowboy Newt Dobbs. A boy growing into manhood in 'LD,' he is a man now, but trying to learn and figure out what kind of man he really is. With the taming of the west, it's a great character to see these changes in as everything around him changes. We're seeing him grow up in front of us. His main subplot involves a rival cattle rancher in Montana, Gregor Dunnigan (Oliver Reed), who becomes a father figure of sorts to him. There's a Shakespearean/mythological edge to the relationship with Gregor's young wife, Ferris (Reese Witherspoon), seeing something she likes in young Newt. Also returning from the original are Chris Cooper as July Johnson, former sheriff now working at Clara's ranch, and Tim Scott as Pea Eye Parker, a former ranger who's long worked with Call and the Hat Creek outfit. Scott is given far more screentime and is a scene-stealer every minute he's in front of the camera. Other returnees include Barry Tubb, William Sanderson and David Carpenter as Jasper, Lippy and Needle, three more Hat Creek cowboys.
If there is an issue with this miniseries, it's that there are a lot of different storylines covered in four episodes. Yes, they criss-cross here and there, but there are a lot of characters and stories to be dealt with. You're going to love some more than others. I certainly did, although I liked them all. My favorite beyond Newt's story was the focus on the mustang herd being driven north from Texas. Playing a character similar to Robert Duvall's Gus, Petersen is a breath of fresh air as Gideon Walker, my favorite new character to the story. Gossett Jr. is underused but still very good as Isom with CCH Pounder as his wife, Sarah, along for the drive with their two children. The cowboys include mostly Mexican vaqueros led by Agostina Vega (Nia Peeples), a young Mexican woman looking for something from Call. Also look for Dennis Haysbert as one nasty villain, Cherokee Jackson, a half-breed outlaw who keeps crossing the herd's trail. Reginald T. Dorsey also a cool if small part as Isaac, Isom's brother leading the mustangs north.
Because the story does have so much going on, the 5 hour and 45-minute running time never really lags. That doesn't mean that some parts aren't better than others. Not surprisingly, the best is saved for the finale. It is an incredibly moving finale, including one absolutely gut-wrenching scene between Voight's Call and Schroder's Newt. It's the scene you wanted to see at the end of Lonesome Dove only to have it never come to fruition. As is though, this is a nearly perfect ending. It's a great capper to a great miniseries, a worthy addition to a great series in general.
Return to Lonesome Dove (1993): *** 1/2 /****