Recently Lonesome Dove was on television in its entirely, and even though I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, I watched a lot of it. It’s available on Netflix – and I have a DVD. What is it about these characters and their plight that draws us back again and again? Three-dimensional, well-drawn characters, backstories of Texas Ranger heroes and lost loves, a yearning for times long past and future hopes suck us right in. I’m still as mad today as the first time that Captain Call wouldn’t acknowledge Newt as his son.
Lonesome Dove, written by Larry McMurtry, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning western novel and the first published book of the Lonesome Dove series. Can you imagine the daunting task that native Texan and screenwriter Bill Wittliff took on when he adapted Larry McMurtry’s novel to film? First, he needed to rein in the sprawling 843 page story while still retaining its majestic essence. Wittliff’s work was also made more difficult because, in the novel, McMurtry uses the narrator’s voice to reveal information about characters and to describe events. To provide the same information in the film, Wittliff needed to create dialogue and provide visual cues that did not exist in the novel.
See an original costume sketch below:
A Southwestern Writers Collection is housed at Texas State and many of the original documents he used while creating this western classic can be viewed online at:
The web exhibit features storyboards, costumes, including Gus’s boots, and even Gus’s dead wrapped body.
The epic four-part six-hour mini-series focuses on the relationship of retired Texas Rangers and their adventures driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. McMurtry originally developed the tale in 1972 for a feature film entitled The Streets of Laredo (a title later used for the sequel), which was to have starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. That didn’t happen, but thank goodness, McMurtry later resurrected the screenplay as a full-length novel. It deservingly became a bestseller and won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The mini-series won six Emmy Awards and was nominated for 13 others.
Casting for this epic was pure genius. Who better to portray these multi-faceted aging Texas Rangers who to this day represent the epitome of courage, loyalty and everything we think of when we think “American West?”
Robert Duvall is Captain Augustus McCrae, co-owner of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and considers himself the brains of the outfit. Generous, humorous, and lazy to the point of eccentricity, he serves as a foil to the more serious, practical Call. When not working, which he does as little as possible, Gus pursues his three chief interests in life: women, alcohol and cards. He is well known in the territory for his loud voice, superior eyesight and accuracy with a revolver.
Tommy Lee Jones is Captain Woodrow F. Call, Gus’s partner in the company. Less verbose and chatty than McCrae, Call works long and hard and sees no reason why others should not do the same. A former Texas Ranger, he served with Gus when both were young men. Though Call has utter disdain for lazy men who drink, gamble and whore their lives away, he has his own secret shame, which he hides carefully from his comrade. Call’s ability to manage unmanageable horses is also well known.
Danny Glover plays a magnificent role as Joshua Deets, an ex-slave and former Ranger. When the story starts he’s a ranch hand at the company. On the drive, he serves as scout. A remarkable tracker and morally upright man, he is one of the few men whom Call respects and trusts.
Before he hit the NY streets as a cop, Rick Shroder played Newt Dobbs, young orphan raised by Gus and Call. His mother was a prostitute named Maggie Tilton, who died when he was a child. He knows his mother was a prostitute, and has no idea who his father might be. Most other observers, notably Gus and Clara Allen, are quite certain that Call is his father. Call eventually comes to this realization privately, but is never able to admit it explicitly.
After watching her on the hit series SMASH, I love seeing the beautiful Anjelica Houston as Clara Allen, a former love of Gus’s. She declined his marriage proposals years ago, and now lives in Nebraska, married to a horse trader who is comatose, having been kicked in the head by a horse. They have two girls, though she is afflicted deeply by the death of her sons. Though separated from Gus by many miles and years, she still holds him fondly in her heart. In contrast, she has utter contempt for Call. When Gus arrives at her ranch their reunion is bitter-sweet.
Diane Lane is the lovely young Lorena Wood, a kind-hearted young woman who was forced into prostitution by her lover, then abandoned in Lonesome Dove. Lorena is silent, strong willed, and intimidating, refusing to submit meekly to her various admirers. Discontent with her line of work, “Lorie” hopes to leave the dead town and find her way to San Francisco. Gus is her champion, and who could ask for a better one?
Secondary threads with characters of July and Almira Johnson and Blue Duck are intricately woven into the plot and throughout the journey of the cattle drive. You can’t help but be enamored by the characters and caught up in their adventures. Watching the story unfold brings laughter and tears every time. The music that accompanies the panoramic scenes does a beautiful job of enhancing the grandeur of the vast landscape and feel of the untamed west. I often listen to the original soundtrack, composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Lonesome Dove spawned the follow-up miniseries, Return to Lonesome Dove.
Trivia facts about Lonesome Dove:
* Robert Duvall, who has appeared in over 80 movies, told CBS that Augustus McCrae, the character he played in Lonesome Dove, was his all time favorite role. We can see why.
* The characters of July Johnson and Roscoe bear the same names as the sheriff and his sidekick who track James Stewart and Dean Martin in the movie Bandolero! (1968). Also, the sequence where Stewart and Martin discuss Montana resembles a similar scene in Lonesome Dove.
* The book, and the character Gus, is mentioned in country singer George Strait’s song “That’s My Kind Of Woman.”
So, fess up. How many times have you watched Lonesome Dove? Did you think return to Lonesome Dove lived up to the first? Have you watched Streets of Laredo or Deadman’s Walk which precede the story?
If you’re a western lover and you’ve never seen this movie, well, I’m just sad for you. But your situation is subject to change. Head for Blockbuster or put it in your Netflix cue!
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Written by Cheryl St.John
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