In the summer of 1988, director Simon Wincer was on location in Texas shooting a TV film that would breathe new life into the western and re-introduce the miniseries to the small screen.
“Lonesome Dove” debuted on CBS over four nights in early February 1989.
William D. Wittliff adapted the script from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (Simon & Schuster, 1985). Lonesome Dove had carried forward McMurtry’s long-avowed goal of writing Southwest fiction that embraced realistic narrative and characters that deviated from the myth-oriented archetypes propelling the genre.
Three acclaimed McMurtry novels already had taken place in modern Southwest settings: Horseman, Pass By (Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1961), Leaving Cheyenne (Harper and Row, 1963), and The Last Picture Show (The Dial Press, 1966). McMurtry delved into such themes as initiation, loneliness, alienation, and a sense of loss among “urbanized” cowboys. His fiction tapped into the 20th-century westerner’s affinity for the land, and, as McMurtry put it, still possessing a temperament not unlike his ancestors, even though he no longer rode horses or carried a gun.
Other distinctive departures came in the form of introspective characters and narrative contradictions fraught with irony, most of which flowed from all sorts of personal circumstances: adolescent sexuality, marriage, aging, and an inviolable devotion held for the western land.
In Leaving Cheyenne,protagonist Gideon Fry speaks with poignant self-reflection about his love-hate relationship with the land: “It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer County so much. Sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever was happening there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery, but it was my country and my people.” (p. 106.)
A revisionist view
It was the lack of irony in popular Southwest fiction that McMurtry had targeted in critical essays in the 1960s and anthologized in In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (Austin Encino Press, 1968). The intention behind his revisionist views of cowboyana, expressed in the essays, was to “renovate the cowboy.”
As a Texan who descended from ranchers, McMurtry set about contrasting his views of his homeland to those which he’d inherited via Southwestern literature — namely traditions carried forth in works by historians Roy Bedichek, W.P. Webb, and J. Frank Dobie. McMurtry described these writers as “nature-lorists” and “sentimentalists,” arguing that sentimentalists “are still fond of saying that nature is the best teacher. I have known many Texans who felt that way, and most of them live and die in woeful ignorance. When I lived in the country, I noticed no abundance of full men.” (In A Narrow Grave, p.36.)
Among the three historians, McMurtry gave Webb the highest grade, due to his “firm commitment to intellect and intellectual process, which is more than can be said of most of his contemporaries.” (Ibid, p. 43.) The one major shortcoming that McMurtry and others saw in Webb’s historical writings was a failure to include domestic topics, women, and children. McMurtry would be quick to remedy these omissions in his novels.
Cow and driver
McMurtry also took aim at the American western genre in film and television. By the mid-1950s, the western essentially was a romantic genre. Creators placed minimal emphasis on the domestic life of the working cowboy as he navigated the ranch and the trail. Instead, the gunfighter had emerged as the essential cowboy protagonist who relied on violence to set things right — see High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and most any John Wayne western.
With the publication of Lonesome Dove in 1985 McMurtry, much to the surprise and delight of many readers, had selected as his topic the trail drive. This working cowboy motif had been blown out of proportion in pop culture in relation to the historical record. Historian Nicholas Lemann explained the reason behind the relatively short-lived phenomenon in a New York Review of Books article (June 9, 1985, p.7):
“The practice of trail-driving herds of beef cattle over long distances from ranch to railroad flourished for just a moment after the Civil War and before the widespread use of barbed wire,” he wrote. “It was the tiniest fraction of our national experience and did not involve more than a few thousand people.”
McMurtry was well aware of the exaggerated tropes that dominated western books, film, and TV. In the 1967 essay “Cowboys, Movies, Myths, and Cadillacs,” he described the trail-ride mythology this way: “The moviegoer usually sees cattle being driven across the country so rapidly that even the wiriest Longhorn could not have sustained it the length of Hollywood Boulevard without collapsing. The trail herds of the 1870s and ’80s were grazed along at a sedate eight to 10 miles a day — anything faster would have been economically disastrous.” (In a Narrow Grave, p.22.)
So how exactly did McMurtry encroach upon one of the grandest of western myths and seize upon narrative and stylistic elements that would transcend the mythology?
Other vintage McMurtry motifs from earlier fiction recur, especially for the younger riders. They experiment with liquor and prostitutes, both of which prove unfulfilling and lead the men to question their adequacy as perceived cowboys. Lonesome Dove projected a human, nonsentimental cowboy at odds with the reckless, devil-may-care prototype from pop culture.
Further, in “reading” the principal protagonists, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, one finds their motivation to be mysterious and inexplicable. Philosophical conversations between the two men, about what they are doing and why they have chosen to do it, reveal an interior process at work in the novel’s characterizations. The dialogue is both lighthearted and tinged with melancholy. Ultimately, the cattle herding trail ride is remastered as a grand saga about working cowboys that is anti-romantic, bittersweet, and laden with ironic ambivalence and disillusionment. Even Gus’ simple reason for making the trail ride rings with irony in light of the tragedies the men encounter on their journey.
“I wouldn’t have missed coming up here,” he declares. “I can think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country.”
The television miniseries
“Lonesome Dove” is an epic television drama set against a western trail ride that begins on the edge of the Rio Grande River and ends in the virgin territory of Montana. Aging ex-Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are restless for adventure and eager to get out of their tiny town of Lonesome Dove. As proprietors of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, they decide to rustle some cows and horses in Mexico and drive them north.
The long ride will take their crew of weathered cowboys and adventurous novices through Texas, New Mexico, the Kansas Plains, and up to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Gus dreams of building a settlement in Montana — its first. Along the way, he intends to call on ex-lover Clara at her Nebraska homestead.
The Hat Creek crew encounters harsh dust, wind, and lightning storms, as well as water shortages, frigid temperatures, and heavy snow. They rescue a prostitute named Lorie who relies on Gus for love and protection. Newt Dobbs, the teenage child of a prostitute named Maggie, is one of the cowboy novices. Joshua Deets, an ex-Ranger scout, will ride the trail as a lookout for rustlers, roaming gangs, and Indians who are given to kidnapping and stealing horses.
Wittliff’s expansive script (dozens of characters, 373 minutes of screen time) is rich in compelling, accented dialogue. Unexpected tragedy abounds: death by water moccasins, hangings, Indian arrows and spears, and roaming gangs who murder innocent men with impunity. Abetting the plot are authentic and detailed screen renderings of the 2,500 horses and cattle driving across the vivid, uncharted American landscape. John Ford’s western compositions immediately come to mind.
Australian director Wincer brought hundreds of hours of film and television experience to the project when he signed on as director in 1988. His gorgeous river crossings, caught in both real-time and slow-motion detail, showcase nature cinematography at its finest.
Wincer’s television work, set in the Australian countryside, includes “Young Ramsay” (1977-80), “Against the Wind” (1978), and “The Last Frontier” (1986). Cattle farming had been a central element in “The Last Frontier.”
The cast of characters
Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall)
Robert Duvall’s leading-role performance as Gus is one for the screen-performance history books: unerringly likable, tough but respectful, a master of impish charm, given to homespun humor and philosophical introspection, as much a man’s man as a woman’s man. Twice-widowed, he is ultimately rejected by Clara as “a husband I knew would never be at home.” Gentility marks Gus as a human being — whether in casual relationships or tete-a-tete banter on horseback with Woodrow Call. Gus’ insights for living tell you everything you need to know about him:
“If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day — that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”
“If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little things you do every day.”
Many fans and critics consider Duvall’s role as Gus to be his finest. It’s the one Duvall says is his personal favorite.
Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones)
Woodrow Call represents the dedicated, hardworking cowboy whose close friendship with Gus is most evident when the two are riding side by side on their horses. Woodrow is someone Gus can prod for a personal response: “When were you the happiest, Call?” Or “Did it ever occur to you that everything we did was a mistake? You and me, we done our work too well, Woodrow. Hell, we killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with, didn’t we?”
As a trail rider, Call plays overseer to the men and silent background protector of 17-year-old Newt. The boy is his son, but Call has yet to acknowledge him. Call, unlike Gus, harbors a reserved but stoic personality. His undying love for his best friend is tested when Gus dies and Call honors his commitment to bury him in Texas. Call’s lonely, arduous trek ends in a flood of tears at the creekside burial.
Back in tiny Lonesome Dove, with the sun setting in the background, a wide-eyed San Antonio reporter interviews Call about his remarkable achievements, traveling some 3,000 miles with Gus’ body.
Characteristically, Call ignores the journalist’s questions except to answer “Yes,” when the reporter asks:
“They say you were a visionary. Were you?”
… and the rest
Joshua Deets (Danny Glover)
A black ex-tracker scout for the Texas Rangers, Deets, friendly, trusted, and always competent, accompanies Call and Gus on their perilous journey. He is ever-watchful of horse thieves, roaming gangs, and Native Americans. Deets’ death comes when his good intentions toward a blind native boy go tragically awry. In a simple eulogy at Deets’ stony burial site, Gus says: “I don’t want to start thinking about all the things we should have done for this good man.”
Newt Dobbs (Ricky Schroder)
Innocent, fresh-faced, and energized by the prospects of adventure, Newt Dobbs’ story plays as a coming-of-age tale. He fends off Cavalry soldiers who seek to appropriate the company’s horses; he breaks in new horses at the settlement; and he gleefully accepts the favors of the homeliest saloon prostitute. In the final episode of the TV series, Newt sports the telltale sign of passage in a not-yet-fully-formed mustache.
Lorie (Diane Lane)
Lorena, a beautiful saloon prostitute in Lonesome Dove, is anything but the “whore with a heart of gold” as defined by Claire Trevor’s Dallas in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Lorie is young, charming, and playful in her interactions with her customers, asking simply and directly: “Would you like a poke?” To which one answers: “Well that would be right neighborly.” Things, however, begin to change when Jake Spoon (a terrific Robert Urich) returns to town after a decade away and claims Lorie for his own. Jealousy leads to abuse and Lorie escapes Lonesome Dove to travel north with the trail riders. Before long, she falls in love with the gentle and kindhearted Gus.
Clara Allen (Anjelica Huston)
As Lorie and Gus approach Clara Allen’s Nebraska homestead, Lorie tells Gus: “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you — you might marry her,” to which Gus responds: “She’s had two chances.” Clara is a strong, confident woman, caring for two young daughters and a husband who lies comatose after a horse kick to the head. Clara greets Gus with lingering kisses and asks, “Why do you have to go up to Montana? You can stay and work here.” Restless already, Gus declines but asks Clara to look after Lorie until he returns. He bids farewell with a tilt of his hat and the single word: “Ladies!” As he slowly disappears, Lorie embraces Clara and the two women cry. Later, when Call stops in Nebraska to inform Clara of Gus’ death, she brazenly scolds him: “It rankles me that [Gus] got so much of you and I got so little over the years.”
One of the pleasures of viewing “Lonesome Dove” 30 years after its premiere comes in watching the very young Chris Cooper and Diane Lane at the onset of their acting careers. Cooper, as ex-Fort Smith, Ark., sheriff July Johnson, spends much of the series traveling with stepson Joe in search of his wife Elmira (Glenne Headly). Eventually arriving at Clara’s ranch, July learns that Elmira had been there, gave birth to a son, and left him with Clara. Her daughter says: “He’s crying.” Clara responds: “He’s been looking for his wife for a long time.” The daughter: “But he’s a man.” And, then McMurtry dismantles mythic cowboyana with Clara’s reply:
“Men have tears too.”
Cooper’s performance as July is a sensitive one — a lawman who writes letters to his absent wife, read in soft-spoken voice-overs. Long-respected for screen portrayals in films as diverse as The Bourne Identity (2002), Syriana (2005), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2014), Cooper received an Academy Award for best supporting actor in Adaptation (2002).
Among these principals are numerous other integral, compelling subplots and characters who add color, grit, and depth to the adventure: a terrifying Mexican/Indian murderer; Irish immigrants who join the ride after getting lost in Mexico; a trail cook who refuses to ride a horse; buffalo hunters; and vast and sundry vagrants, hooligans, and troublemakers. Viewers may recognize the young D.B. Sweeny as “Dish,” Steve Buscemi as “Luke,” and Nina Siemaszko, as runaway “Janey.”
“Lonesome Dove” earned a remarkable response to its debut Feb. 5-8, 1989. More than 26 million viewers tuned in to CBS for the western drama, a genre long thought to be passé. The program earned 18 Emmy nominations, Golden Globe awards, and lavish critical praise for the principal actors and supporting players. The miniseries on television, also thought passé, sprang to new life. Sequels were spawned.
Three decades later, “Lonesome Dove’s” legacy remains firmly intact — for many the greatest western ever. I place the series in the same realm as Blade Runner (1982). Both are singular classics — of the western and sci-fi genres, respectively — that fans will continue to revisit for the discovery of old and new pleasures.