An Epic Western Classic: Lonesome Dove

call and mcrae

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:

costume sketch

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.


gus and clara


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!

Leave a comment today for a chance to win a $15 e-Amazon card from Tanya Hanson.

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34 thoughts on “An Epic Western Classic: Lonesome Dove”

  1. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have watched these movies! I love western movies and books! If you have seen them you are definitely missing out ! I wish I lived back in those days. I believe in another life I did! Thanks for the giveaway!

  2. I love to watch Lonesome Dove. I too have seen it a dozen or more times and also have the dvd. Everytime its on TV that’s what were watching. Thanks for the chance to win an Amazon card.

  3. Loved the book and the movie, Cheryl. Robert Duval’s Gus is such a classic character.

    I’ve seen both the other movies you mentioned. Sorry, they don’t even come close to the original.

  4. I love Lonesome Dove. I have watched it many times. I don’t think any of the other movies are as good as Lonesome Dove.
    Thank you for the giveaway.

  5. Western Books and Movies always are my favorite. They are meaningful and beautiful. Lonesome Dove is in a class of its own.

  6. I LOVED this movie! I watch it every time it comes on and I always see something I missed a previous time. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones were and still are superb. Especially in these rolls. I can’t imagine anyone else playing their parts. I think Larry McMurtry really outdid himself when he wrote this book. It’s truly special.

    Good luck to everyone on winning the gift card.

  7. AN epic for sure. Lonesome Dove has it all. great actors, wonderful story and is my ultimate favorite. Western movies such as Tombstone is the only other one I would consider watching.

  8. Lonesome Dove is my all time favorite movie!
    I’ve only watched it a couple times b/c of the length–but I also read the book.
    The second movie was not nearly as good…nothing could measure up to the first.
    I really loved Gus and Call equally–I felt bad for Call.

  9. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie! I also loved the book Centennial by Mitchner.. and I liked the movied also. And I was a huge fan of Robert Duvall!

  10. I’ve not read the book and saw the mini-series only when first aired. Thanks for the reminder to remedy that and for the giveaway.

  11. I remember having to read the book and watch the mini series for a college class… that was my first taste of Larry McMurtry’s work… loved it so much I got my hands on a few more of his books… have seen the mini series a few times through the years… still enjoy it.

  12. I have never seen the movie, but after reading this post im on my way to Netflix! I love western movies and even more western books!most times I feel like i was born in the wrong era hahahha.

  13. I love Robert Duvall, so Lonesome Dove is a favorite of mine. They’re one of the many book series’ I keep meaning to start, and regret that I haven’t yet.

  14. I am heartened at how many have seen Lonesome Dove more than once. My cowboy husband says that this movie is one of the best realistic westerns made. They did make an effort for this to be, too. Rick Schroeder actually learned to ride a horse (and well), for this. And it showed. There is nothing more horrible than to see a western actor that can’t ride a horse. The two main characters were practically born horseback, so they were great.
    I saw a documentary on the History channel last weekend about Mr. Goodnight and Mr Loving and their story is very similar to this movie story. Even down to taking one of the men 600 miles back to Texas after he died. That really struck me as quite similar to Lonesome Dove. You wouldn’t think that part would make a good story. Great movie in my house.

  15. Loved the movie and have seen it several times but it has been several years since I have seen it. Would love to see it again. I am big into westerns. When it comes to a western book of movie I am there. We have Open Range recorded on our DVR right now but haven’t had the time to set down and watch it yet.

  16. What a wonderful cast of characters! This was one of the few movies that I thought did justice to the book which I had read first and normally I have a lot of complaints but although of course there was more to the story, I think they did a fantastic job! I’ve seen it many times but not for a while and I think it’s time to see it again now!

  17. Lonesome Dove—definitely one of the best westerns ever. We have it on DVD and have watched it several times.

    Streets of Laredo—well done but not as good as LD; James Garner, Sissy Spacek, and Sam Shepard are such good actors you see the characters and almost forget they were played by other fine actors in the original. This story is actually a sequel to LD.

    Return to Lonesome Dove— We recently saw this for the first time on DVD; definitely not as good as LD or SL; I was surprised to see a young Reese Witherspoon as one of the main characters. The scenery is beautiful.

    Deadman’s Walk—have only seen this one when it was on TV and didn’t really like it.

  18. Cheryl,

    I couldn’t even guess at how many times I’ve seen Lonesome Dove. I never cared for Return to Lonesome Dove, but I think that’s because Tommy Lee Jones didn’t return as Captain Call, and Gus was gone.


  19. I agreed with what everyone said, and I too had a hard time with the Return movie and seeing John Voight (who I like otherwise) as Call.

    How awesome to have this shared love of a fabulous movie experience. It IS an experience!

  20. Oh my, I’ve seen this movie so many times, I couldn’t even tell you an accurate number.

    I loved the book. Which is a testament to the characters McMurtry created because NOTHING good happens to those characters and I couldn’t put it down!

    I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite in the series. Dead Man’s Walk was terrific (as was the movie) and Streets of Laredo is so tragic and fascinating!

  21. It’s a sad thing for me as a fa of western movie, especially cowboy and ranch. I’d like to watch it after reading the description. How can i miss this movie?
    Thanks for the information.

  22. It’s a sad thing for me as a fan of western movie, especially cowboy and ranch. I’d like to watch it after reading the description. How can i miss this movie?
    Thanks for the information.

  23. I watched Lonesome Dove when it first showed on TV and have seen parts of it since. I have never had the time to get it and have a “marathon” Lonesome Dove night. If I remember correctly, it was well worth watching. I don’t think I cared for the Return as much.

    Now I am going to look for it and make time to see it again.

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