"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lonesome Dove (Motown Productions, 1989)


The TV mini-series Lonesome Dove was of course based on the great Western novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry. In fact Mr. McMurtry had written it back in the 1970s as the screenplay of a movie to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich. It was to have starred James Stewart as Augustus McCrae and John Wayne as Woodrow Call. Henry Fonda was to have been Jake Spoon. It would have been memorable. But it all fell through when Wayne turned it down, leading Stewart to back out, and the project was eventually shelved.
A fine Western
Ten years later McMurtry resurrected the screenplay as a full-length novel, which became a bestseller and won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. After this, the idea of turning the novel into film came up again. Both John Milius (writer of Jeremiah Johnson and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) and John Huston (director of Judge Roy Bean and the 1960 The Unforgiven and writer and director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) each attempted to adapt the book into a feature film before Suzanne De Passe and McMurtry decided to turn the novel into a mini-series.

In fact the huge, sweeping, thousand-page novel had far outgrown the scope of a Hollywood screenplay. The book has a Dickensian richness and number of characters and tells the story of a long cattle drive from Texas to Montana with several subplots. Mr. McMurtry was right to turn to TV which could give it the length (six hours total) required. You can actually watch it at a sitting (I did again last night) and if you do, and you have one of the big new TVs (and some popcorn), you come close to a multiplex experience. It isn’t that TV didn’t have the budget: it cost twenty million dollars in the mid-80s, and that was a more than respectable Hollywood amount. Production values were the equal of a feature film. Lonesome Dove is a 3000-mile cattle drive away from a Gunsmoke-style Western TV show.

Of course, even at six hours +, the story had to be edited down. Writer William D Wittliff did a wonderful job to distill the novel to the series teleplay. He telescoped certain trains of events and cut out a few characters. Lovers of the book will regret the non-appearance of, say, the cattleman Wilbarger, but to his great credit, Mr. Wittliff retained the spirit and character of the book, no mean feat. Mr. McMurtry must have been pleased.

Lonesome Dove is one of the great epic screen works of the West. It really has everything: action, excitement, love, hatred, violence, humor, adventure, courage – this list could go on. But above all what it has is characters.
Two great characters, two great performances
Mr. McMurtry’s two Texas Rangers, Captains Woodrow Call and Augustus McRae, are wonderful creations. Casting them for the screen must have been extremely difficult. All sorts of options were discussed. James Garner was famously to have played Gus but tragically had to drop out because of ill health. He would have been magnificent. Still, if he had taken it we would have been deprived of one of the greatest Western performances of all time, that of Robert Duvall. Duvall was originally offered the part of Call, but he turned it down on the grounds he had already played that type of character, and asked to play Gus. Others were considered for the role of Call but again, now that we see Tommy Lee Jones, we have difficulty in imagining who else could have been that tough, taciturn, almost autistic character. These could still even today possibly be Duvall and Jones’s best ever Western roles, and that is saying a lot.

And the whole troupe of fellow actors stick in your memory too. Poor Newt, who is in some ways himself the lonesome dove of the title, is very well played by Rick(y) Schroder, who captures the youth and naïvety of the growing boy, the readiness to tears and the growing bitterness at his father’s refusal to acknowledge him. It is in many ways a coming-of-age story. Mr. Schroder was excellent in that part.
In some ways Gus acts as Newt's dad
Deets is played by Danny Glover, who just a few years before had done something similar with his role as Mal in Silverado, though it must be said that his Deets was even better. Mr. Glover does not have a very long Western CV but it is ultra-high quality. Nothing is said about his quilt pants but he wears them. His death is as genuinely moving in the film as it is in the book – and it’s a teary moment in the novel. Pea Eye (Timothy Scott) is maybe older than he seems in the book. Scott captures brilliantly, however, the stolid, plodding loyalty of the character.
The great Deets
Loyal, slow: Pea Eye
The rogue Jake Spoon is Robert Urich, not an actor I knew at all. He has a slightly Oliver Reedish look to him – Reed might have been a good choice. I don’t think he had quite the weight as an actor that the others did. He needed a bit more roguish charm. Maybe Robert Duvall had cornered the market in roguish charm.
Horse thief hanged by horse thieves

As for the women, ‘Lorie darling’, the whore whom Gus rescues and who loves him to his dying day and beyond, is played by the quite beautiful Diane Lane. She seems very refined and ladylike for a south Texas prostitute (not, I hasten to add, that I have great experience of south Texas prostitutes) but is especially good in the traumatic post-abduction time with Gus. Her ordeal is softened in the film and was far more brutal in the book but it is still horrific enough to explain her regression into an almost childlike state of utter dependence on the gentle McRae. Clara, the great love of Gus’s life, is wonderfully played by Anjelica Huston. She just got it right. Her age, demeanor, waspishness, everything is just as McMurtry painted her in the book. It is an outstanding performance. If anything, she is even more contemptuous of Call than in the novel.
Clara counsels Lorena
Glenne Headly, another actor I didn’t know, played Elmira Johnson. She really looked the part in her poke bonnet and scruffy dress. She successfully managed a difficult role: Elmira is one of the least sympathetic characters in the book. It is hard to like her or even feel all that sorry when she is finally seen with arrows piercing her body. All the women are of course broken in one way or another by inadequate or unworthy men. You get a sense from this picture of how desperately hard life must have been for women in the West. And you also feel how women who are by nature and disposition in control of their destinies and lives are still constrained by the essentially male society the West really was.
Great bonnet

In fact all the acting is splendid and it is difficult to single anyone out. From Fort Smith, Chris Cooper (later so good in Lone Star) is just right as the dogged, sad, rather pathetic sheriff July Johnson, Barry Corbin is his amiably incompetent deputy Roscoe Brown, and Helena Humann outstanding in the short but juicy part of Peach Johnson, the sheriff’s rooster-dispatching obese sister-in-law.
Poor July
What a Peach
Charles Bronson had originally agreed to play Blue Duck (thatmight have been interesting) but he was under contract to Cannon Films who said he was required to make a movie for them instead. His replacement, Frederic Forrest, plays the outlaw as a straight Bronson lookalike. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as frighteningly evil as he was in the book. McMurtry is good at really scary Indians like Blue Duck or Buffalo Hump.

Of the cowboys, the Irishmen (Travis Swords and Bradley Gregg) didn’t seem quite Irish enough to me. The recruitment of the Spettle and the Rainey boys is cut for the movie (fair enough) and they only have occasional appearances and little or nothing to say. Drovers Soupy Jones (Lanny Flaherty), Needle Nelson (David Carpenter) and Bert Borum (Sonny Carl Davis) are also anodyne and bland. But then there are already 89 speaking parts and only six hours of footage. There’s a limit to how many characters can be delineated and developed. Read the book for more! Dish Boggett (JB Sweeny), in his curiously 1970s facial hair, is as obsessed and loyal in his way to Lorie as Big Zwey (Frederic Coffin) is to Elmira. I thought Mr. Coffin wasn’t quite big enough or dumb enough. But Steve Buscemi was brilliant as his greasy sidekick Luke. He was very early in his career and already a stand-out character actor.

Well, I’m not going to talk about all the cast. I’d just like to mention Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as Po Campo the cook, in his last Western. He did 18 altogether and I especially remember him for his part in The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals and The Revengers. He’s perfect as Po. I also liked Julius Tennon in his sadly very short part as Frog Lip, the black bandit, a sort of anti-Deets. And his boss the bloody Dan Suggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) has a cool 1875 Remington revolver carbine.
The anti-Deets
I loved the Mexican rustling scene and the way Call rides down the Army scout who is beating Newt. If anything, these were even more stirring on the screen than they were in the book. I missed the great fight between the bear and the bull but that would have been pretty hard to stage.

One area that is perhaps insufficiently developed is the paradox of the ex-Ranger horse-stealers (they are the ones who involve Jake in rustling) hanging Jake as a horse thief. The whole notion of extra-judicial punishment is a difficult one. The TV series seems to gloss over it and while it makes the Hat Creek boys duly regretful, it almost seems to justify what is, in the last resort, a brutal lynching - actually a murder. Call and McRae have no lawman’s badges, no jurisdiction or right to hang anyone. Yes, it was the all-too-wild West. Taking the odious murderers to jail was arduous and risky, even impossible. Still…

Shot in Texas and New Mexico by Douglas Milsome, the series is visually beautiful. The sets, such as Bent’s Fort, San Antone or Lonesome Dove itself are very well done indeed. The special effects are a bit clunky by today’s standards (false buzzards circling and so on) but it was the late 1980s. The rolling music by Basil Poledouris is handsome and appropriate. The picture is closely directed and edited (Simon Wincer, Corky Ehlers). Mr. Wincer directed the excellent Tom Selleck Westerns Quigley Down Under, Crossfire Trail and Monte Walsh. He is very good.
Heading for Montana
It was a prime-time family TV show. It is therefore bowdlerized - understandable, if slightly regrettable. The book is earthier, saltier, grittier – and therefore more plausible. Much of the language is toned down for TV and certain scenes such as Newt’s initiation in a whorehouse are tactfully faded out.

However, a common complaint with TV Westerns, namely that pacing is too staccato as the film is geared to episodes and, within the episodes, commercial breaks, is not applicable here. Watching it all through yesterday, I thought it flowed very well. It is a fairly ‘straight’ or traditional TV show in the sense that events are often telegraphed and pretty predictable but the script follows McMurtry enough to give us shocks and surprises, especially of course if you haven’t read the book first.

Probably unfairly, I would like cuts and out-takes to have been restored for the DVD version. It would have been nice to have an even longer and more complete Lonesome Dove.

There is, though, nothing seriously wrong with this huge motion picture. In fact in its own, different way it’s almost as good as the book, and you can’t give it more glowing praise than that. Splendid behavior.


  1. I agree with your assessment here. I haven't read the book as recently as you have, but it's hard to imagine a better adaptation of a great novel. Maybe it's time to read it and watch it again.

  2. I agree also. I will include praise for one small detail on a matter with which I am very familiar. As a elementary-junior high kid in the age of "duck and cover", while playing in a creek bed, I managed to duck in a place where there were two 3/4" mesquite thorns, both of which entered near my knee cap. I didn't know that I had more than a scratch, until my knee swelled up and I went through about two weeks of soaking and swelling before finally having it lanced. At any rate, whoever constructed Jake Spoon's mesquite thorn in the hand makeup either had experienced it or had seen someone who had. The disguise was a more accurate representation of what they look like than that of Daniel Day-Lewis' in the movie Lincoln. I flinched at the scene. Anyway, fine review of a wonderful book and series.

    1. It must have been unpleasantly realistic for you!