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Lonesome Dove Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 18, 2008

    “Well, we always like to git where we're going, even if it don't make a damn bit of sense!”

    Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about aging Texas Rangers, sick of their sedentary existence in a sleepy, dust-filled shanty called Lonesome Dove a spit away from the Mexican border, stealing a herd of cattle and driving it 2500 miles north to Montana in the hopes of both finding adventure along the way and starting a new life on the last frontier went on to become one of the most beloved and critically lauded TV mini-series ever produced. It spawned a prequel and a sequel and inspired countless other revisionist Western odyssey-sagas and still lingers prevalently in the American psyche as a torch to a bygone era and a breed of man that no longer exists. Aired in 1989, the four-part movie was lavishly mounted, surprisingly faithful to its literary source and featured an awesome cast top-lined by Robert Duval, Tommy Lee Jones and Angelica Huston. Now released on Blu-ray, the magnificently drawn sprawl of spiritual quest, violence, love and redemption finds a new lease of life and, hopefully, garners a few new fans.

    “It's an accident she is even on this trip."

    “I never noticed you having accidents with ugly girls."

    When another former Texas Ranger, Robert Urich's gambling wide-boy, Jake Spoon, arrives on their doorstep after years roving the country, with tales of untapped potential up in the wilds of Montana, something takes root in the mind of the visionary Captain Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones). Ever the introvert, Call seeks the distraction of work and purpose, the call of the open country far from the bustle of towns. He longs to see this fabled and dangerous North Country before the lawyers and the bankers get their mitts on it and carve it up, and he fashions a scheme that will take him and Robert Duval's happy-go-lucky, whiskey-and-whore-loving Gus McCrae, along with their faithful buddies from the old days of cleaning-out Texas of Comanche and bandits (and, ultimately, making it a really dull place in the process) on the adventure of a lifetime. But the course of dreams as grand as this never runs smoothly and the past of several of their number is going to entwine fatefully around the trek almost from the get-go. With a pilfered herd, a sheriff from Arkansas (Chris Cooper) reluctantly sniffing out Jake, Diane Lane's exquisite whore-with-a-heart, Lorena, tagging along and causing no end of emotional hang-ups, and a painfully indistinct father/son dispute between Call and Rick Schroder's boy-into-man Newt Dobbs, the journey is going to be eventful, with challenges and tragedy dogging them almost every step of the way.

    Multiple plots thread through the story like Indiana Jones-style travel-lines on the map of Lonesome Dove, Bill Wittliff's consistent and fascinating screenplay only slightly coalescing the character-arcs of the principles into a more coherent and thematically enriched denouement, but otherwise remaining almost letter-perfect to McMurtry's novel. But there is relentlessness and a surge to this enterprise that is nigh-on undeniable. If the first episode delightfully takes its time before the cattle-drive gets underway, it becomes the thing that anchors the men, so nuanced and detailed that we never forget what they have left behind and the toll that the journey is going to take on them. Australian director Simon Wincer managed to win over the dubious Texans who were mortified that someone from so far away could helm a project so precious to them when the fortuitous premier of his esteemed The Light Horseman quelled their nerves a bit, and then when the first episode aired, the ratings shot through the roof. It appeared that someone from the other side of the world had a better grasp, a more immediate vision and more dedication to authenticity and character than anybody home-grown. And the mini-series went from strength to strength, garnering seven Emmy Awards out of eighteen nominations, as well numerous other accolades and gongs, and a lasting foothold on the spirit of the Western genre as a whole.

    “I'm just tryin' to keep everything in balance, Woodrow. You do more work than you got to, so it's my obligation to do less.”

    Duval and Jones dominate, which is hardly surprising. Given their calibre and genuine credibility both as cowboys and as weary men of the world, we should expect nothing less. Yet, whilst grandstanding performances in TV drama are commonplace these days, back in 1989 such achievements, especially in this genre, were rare. But Lonesome Dove needs such integrity and strong three-dimensionality to support a tale that is as deeply internal as it is expressive of the endless landscape. Duval, especially, is wonderful, and takes the lion's share of the screentime. His character is an absolute godsend of a part, requiring him to be both laidback and intense at the drop of a hat. His weather-beaten philosophising is entirely plausible when issuing from his lips. Coming from anybody else - even Jones, whose Call has a more ambiguous and officious personality - such moments as comforting a brutalised Diane Lane, or offering brief but practical words over a grave, reacting in shock to a justified yet horrifying hanging or matter-of-factly taking charge of the tragically unnecessary burials along the way would have been clichéd and stock character beats. But you only have to observe how he sardonically belittles Call with virtually every sentence he utters to understand implicitly how much he actually loves him. When matters of the heart eventually do catch up with him, opposite the equally fantastic Angelica Huston, he hides it well, but you know that the once-indomitable spirit has been ... not broken exactly, but deeply scored, nevertheless. It is a grand performance indeed that manages to be touching, gruff, cynical-yet-optimistic, devoutly human and deadly serious when the need arises. Above all, Duval makes you believe that Gus exists, that he lives and breathes ... and his presence, no matter how goading he can get at times, is always a reassurance. The actor, who was originally slated to play Call but demanded the more versatile Gus, has always maintained that this is his favourite ever part.

    “Sometimes it seems like digging graves is all we do around here, don't it, Cholo?”

    Jones, as I have implied, is also magnificent. But his ostensible leader of the outfit is much more introverted, carrying his own secrets deep within him. If it wasn't for Call's constant badgering we would know nothing about him. But there are moments, little shining moments when he allows his guard to drop. Very early on, when Jake has first arrived at the tumbledown ranch in Lonesome Dove, the matters of the past nine years are openly discussed, except by Woodrow, who sits at the head of the table, farthest away from us and framed by a symbolically open door. Look at Jones' face as he listens, those crags and dark eyes clearly struggling to mask the pain and heartache he feels. Taciturn retorts to the baiting of Gus notwithstanding, Jones' portrays the quiet man of action, the emphatic fist that never flinches nor pauses to question the morality of a deed. An awesome scene sees Woodrow ferociously take out a belligerent army scout - a scene very worthy of instant replay, folks - and, in that moment, he becomes the eye of the storm, the righteous avenger. Yet, even then, he is a stark contrast to his brother-in-arms. Whereas Gus can happily stare a threat in the face, even plainly enjoying himself whilst pinned-down behind the corpse of his horse by a gang of ruthless Indians and outlaws, Woodrow is the epitome of focussed rage. He'll have fun beating someone to a pulp, but he sure as hell won't show that he's having fun. His inhibitions make him cold and stoic, however, and this sure does rankle the folks around him. But Jones was born to play such roles and he effortlessly enables Call to live and breathe just as much Duval is able to pump zest through Gus's veins.

    “What Indians is it that we're fightin', anyway?”

    “They ... they didn't introduce themselves ...”

    The film is exceptionally generous to all of its cast members, though, a luxury that is usually the province of expanded television drama, but somehow the material here brings out the best in virtually everyone. Danny Glover, especially, is wonderful as the expert scout and tracker, Joshua Deets. Brilliantly conceived, with that little Union cap almost permanently perched on his head and the oddest pair of quilt-patterned trousers you ever did see, he delivers a magically sensitive performance that wrings good-natured smirks, dependability and heartbreak in one restrained and selfless performance. Cleverly kept on the sidelines for much of the time, Glover still manages to make Deeds one of the most memorable elements of the entire show. With its gargantuan running time, the tale can afford to open-up and, in the true conventions of the Great American Novel, things meander, stories deviate, crossover and collide and characters go through epiphanies that are required in some cases and ignored in others. Inevitably this epic style of narrative has casualties along the way. Sadly, the other main plotline of Lonesome Dove, running parallel to the cattle-drive, of Chris Cooper's quest to find his psychologically fractured wife, plays a sore second-fiddle to the main directional thrust. As emotional - and violent - as it gets, this strand falls far short of the stature and immaculate mood set by the migration of Call and Gus. I should stress, however, that this is absolutely no fault of Cooper's, who is on terrific form as disenfranchised Sheriff July Johnson, or Glenne Headly, as his past-obsessed wife Elmira, and the misbegotten vagrants she falls-in with (including a deeply unlucky Steve Buscemi), but rather that the poignancy of their story all-too often meets with dry conclusions and underwhelming developments in comparison to those of the other journeymen. You can't help but feel that truly magisterial atmosphere dissipate a little bit whenever the film returns to their part of the saga.

    Yet there is much reward for sticking with things away from the cattle-drive. The unusual plight of Glenne Headly takes in the bizarre appearance and activities from bug-eyed down-and-outs in furs and skins who resemble Crazies from Escape From New York and there is a haunting, fable-like quality to her futile, lovelorn quest, symbolising the fragility and randomness of life and death back then. The impressive Angelica Huston, presiding wilfully over her upper-class horse-ranch as Gus' one true love, Clara Allen, seems to provide an emotional backbone to the show's second half. Almost cosmically, everyone seems to end up being swept under her influence and, like Claudia Cardinale in Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, she seems to be the one character who truly epitomises the strength, wisdom and optimism for the thrusting new nation. Mixing humour with poignancy, yearning with pragmatism, she becomes the only saviour for many of these disparate, roving souls. And we should also pause to recognise the talents of two esteemed veterans in Barry Corbin's almost comical deputy Roscoe Brown (named after the prodigiously voiced thespian who appears in similar cattle-driving odyssey, The Cowboys, alongside John Wayne, perhaps) who brings with him a likeable bumbling and charmingly daft persona, and Tim Scott's grizzled old-timer Pea-Eye Parker, whose “slow-on-the-uptake” and nervous demeanour should have proved a major omen to the playfully cavalier Gus once they reach the untamed plains of Montana. Elsewhere, D.B Sweeny's smitten Dish Boggett goes through the motions as a perennial hanger-on, much like the two little pigs that follow the herd from start to finish, driven ever onwards but often ignored, whilst Rick Schroder injects some authentic rites-of-passage across the trip. And then there's Diane Lane who puts in a mesmerising performance as the fallen angel of the piece - the cause of much dispute along the trial and the catalyst for many a fate. Put through the wringer, she still manages to come up smelling of roses and looking just fine, but the surprisingly young (at the time) actress taps into so much emotional and psychological resources that she almost runs away with the show during a couple of extremely overwrought sequences and it will a hard heart indeed that doesn't break after one particularly gruelling ordeal that she undergoes.

    “I ain't got time to waste on killin' some old Ranger with holes in his underwear. There's plenty more need killin'.”

    As much a cast member of the show as the terrific ensemble is the wonderful cinematography from Douglas Milsome, whose natural eye for the majestic is complemented further by veteran Dean Semler, another Antipodean who made the voyage with Simon Wincer. A natural when it comes to shooting wide open spaces and placing humanity and emotion right in the heart of them, with Mad Max 2, Young Guns and Apocalypto to his credit, Semler assumed Second Unit duties here, but his hallmark is all over the wondrous imagery. The wide open plains are naturally spectacular and you tend to wonder how anyone could foul up a shot in the first place, but the sweeping action photography is right up there with the best that the big screen can offer. Gus and Pea-Eye on the run from a raiding party of Indians is a clear standout and some of the stunt-work here is also exemplary. Real fear is steeped throughout scenes such as this because Wincer keeps showing us things that we don't expect to see on TV show, continually pushing the boundaries and bestowing Lonesome Dove an unpredictable quality of raw savagery. The arrow-removal scene is exceptionally wince-inducing. “It won't go through!” bleats a frightened Pea-Eye. “Then push harder!” urges the still-grinning Gus.

    Some of the visual effects are a bit ropey, though. The approaching thunderstorm surging towards the herd during the first episode, a couple of circling vultures and the fierce rain lashing poor Pea-Eye as he hurtles down a river in flood are examples of poor composite shots that, blessedly, are about the only evidence that mark this out as a pre-nineties TV production. Otherwise, the series looks highly impressive, with amazing towns that appear lived-in and believably “working” extras all around who aren't simply taking a stroll past the cameras, and convincing horse-play right across the board because all the actors learnt to become extremely competent riders, so no doubles here, folks. The costumes are dull and dirty and absolutely authentic, the product of poring over vast amounts of sepia photographs from the era, which has led to a trend for realism in the genre that no western made since Lonesome Dove can afford to skimp on. The pantomimic elements of most televised oaters prior to this have largely been eradicated, with no one person absolute black or absolute white, except maybe the despicable half-breed cutthroat Blue Duck (absolute blue, then, eh?), played by a shaggy-haired, intimidating Frederick Forrest, and everybody made up of good and bad points, fallibilities and hang-ups. There is a soap-opera quality to some of the film's longeurs but this is something that only embellishes the overall story, and a deliberately gloss-removed aura that places grit in your hair and dust in your mouth. It is easy to see why the production became hailed as a masterpiece and one of the greatest westerns ever made. This was possibly the first time that American audiences had glimpsed a vision of how their nation, and the pioneers that forged it, came of age. Only in movies such as The Outlaw Josie Wales or in Peckinpah's saddle-sore demythologising eulogies to men who had outlived their times had they come close to getting such a warts 'n' all appreciation of the history that Hollywood had tried so hard to rewrite.

    Lonesome Dove is top class entertainment that is unafraid to depict the times in which it is set, and the people who lived through and helped shape them with a hard and unflinching eye. As revision, it is smooth and certainly no dry history lesson. As an odyssey, it is powerful, moving and completely immersive. The award-winning score from Basil (Conan The Barbarian/Starship Troopers) Poledouris is excellent, even if it did provide the training ground for the composer's later Quigley Down Under, itself a western relocated to Wincer's Australia in a neat reversal. With performances to die for and a mood that is hard to shake off, this classic Western is the point at which the genre finally managed to embrace both the cherished myth and the known reality of it all.

    Very highly recommended.