Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Lonesome Dove Saga

Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning novel Lonesome Dove was made into a four-part TV mini-series in 1989, single-handedly reviving the Western genre, and became one of the most-watched shows of the decade. I just adored everything about it, and have now seen it several times.

McMurtry re-visited the story three times, and all the books were made into mini-series. None had the impact of the original, but all the books were good, and so were the series. In retrospect, the four books can be seen as the saga of Woodrow Call, a profoundly flawed, emotionally deprived hero who I nevertheless can’t help liking. It is Woodrow’s story because the other hero, the wonderful Augustus McRae, dies shockingly in the original story. These men are played by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in what I think are the best performances each of them have ever turned in, and that’s saying something, because I’ve liked both of them in many things. Of the sequels, two pre-date the original, and one comes afterward, with Woodrow on his own.

The original story had a weird history. It was based on a screenplay by McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich. The movie was to star those old warhorses John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. We will never know how they would have played Gus and Woodrow and (I assume) the ne’er-do-well Jake Spoon, because Wayne turned it down. I’m glad. So then the story became a novel, and finally the TV show.

We found a DVD of Comanche Moon and it inspired us to watch all four of these series. I’m going to review them in historical order, not in order of publication or production.

I insert a SPOILER WARNING here. If you haven’t seen these and intend to, stop right now. I will give away most of the plot points, and with McMurtry, many of them will shock you.

Dead Man’s Walk (1996) This was the first chronologically and the third book in order of publication. It takes place in Texas, as they all do, mostly, in 1845, in the Republic of Texas just before statehood. Texas needed peace officers, mostly to fight the Comanche, and so the Texas Rangers were formed. McRae and Call, who are just boys, sign up and find themselves on an extremely ill-advised invasion of New Mexico. (Based on fact, but it happened in 1841.) It is led by a fairly crazy man named Caleb Cobb, played by F. Murray Abraham. The problem is, the Mexicans don’t think of it as “New” Mexico, they maintain it is part of Mexico. The Dead Man’s Walk is the Jornada del Muerto, a brutal stretch of land with no water at all. Even the Indians avoid it. I’ve driven through it, and it’s so forbidding you hesitate to even get out of the car. The rangers are taken prisoner and marched through it. Most of them die before reaching El Paso.

Along the way they are harassed by a Comanche named Buffalo Hump, who will appear again in Comanche Moon. He is the father of Blue Duck, who is also in that one, and in Lonesome Dove. He is accompanied by his friend Kicking Wolf, the best horse thief in the Comancheria. They steal most of the horses and then set the prairie on fire, killing all the others and some of the men. And then it just keeps getting worse, and worse, and worse …

The few survivors, including Keith Carradine as Bigfoot Wallace, a real Texas Ranger, and Harry Dean Stanton as Shadrach, a scout, end up at a convent and leper colony, where they are forced to draw lots for their lives. The Mexican authorities have decreed that some must die, and some can live. Finally, they accompany an aristocratic opera singer with leprosy back to Texas. They aren’t bothered by Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf because, in a wonderful scene, the lady takes off her clothes and sings an aria, totally freaking them out.

The big question is who plays Gus and Woodrow, and how do they do? They are David Arquette and Johnny Lee Miller, and they are both quite good. I don’t think it’s fair to compare them to Duvall and Jones. It’s enough to say they do a good job, and are believable. You can imagine them growing into the proprietors of the Hat Creek Cattle Company (We Don’t Rent Pigs!) on the drive to Montana with Deets and Pea Eye and Newt and Dish.

Comanche Moon (2008) There is so much plot here that it would be crazy for me to try to do it justice, so I’ll just mention some highlights. Val Kilmer is Inish Scull, one of the weirder characters McMurtry ever wrote, and he’s written some weird ones. Woodrow and Gus are in an expedition to find Buffalo Hump (this time played by the great Wes Studi) and Kicking Wolf. They don’t get far when Kicking Wolf steals Scull’s prize horse, and he sets out with only his Kickapoo guide, Famous Shoes, who doesn’t ride but is always there ahead of you. Scull is captured by the sadistic halfbreed Ahumado, who puts him down in a snake pit, expecting him to die. He keeps his sanity (what little he had) by singing and other diversions, frustrating Ahumado. (In the book Ahumado had his torturer cut off Scull’s eyelids. Too intense for TV, I guess.)

There is more of the continuing story of Gus and Clara’s frustrated romance. The Comanche attack Austin, killing lots of people. This actually happened, but at a different date, and it’s not possible to be totally angry about this, since at the beginning of the series we see another actual event. In 1840 the Comanche chiefs had been invited to talk under a flag of truce. But when they showed up, weaponless, they were slaughtered by the Texans in what is known as the Council House Massacre. Buffalo Hump witnessed this. So fuck you, Austin. Burn it down, Hump!

We briefly see the “rescue” of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped at the age of nine and lived with the Comanche for 24 years. Naturally, she was more Comanche than white by then, hated being with the whites, tried to escape, and was rescued again. She finally starved herself to death. She was the mother of Quanah Parker, a totally fascinating character who I’d like to see a movie about. I think Cynthia Ann may have been the inspiration for Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers. Ethan (John Wayne) aims to kill her when he finds her, as being raised with the redskins is a fate worse than death.

As always in a McMurtry western, things never happen the way they do in a normal western. Gus and Woodrow hardly ever succeed at anything they attempt as Rangers. They never catch Buffalo Hump, he is killed by his son, Blue Duck. Ahumado is never brought to justice, he dies from a spider bite!

The guys are played here by Karl Urban and Steve Zahn, who both do a good job. In addition Elizabeth Banks plays Maggie, the whore who gives birth to Newt, the son that Woodrow will never admit is his own. Clara is Linda Cardellini. It’s kind of fun to see these characters played by four different people as the stories go on. I think this was my second-favorite Lonesome Dove series.

Lonesome Dove (1989) It’s just about perfect. All I could ask for is wide screen and better definition, which wasn’t an option in 1989. I’ve been spoiled by my HDTV. But never mind, I don’t demand hi-def and color for Casablanca or City Lights. The music is exactly what it should be, with the grand sweep of the plains. The supporting work by Danny Glover and Robert Urich and Ricky Schroder and Angelica Huston and Glenne Headly and Tim Scott and Chris Cooper and Barry Corbin is all first-rate. Frederick Forrest does a good job as Blue Duck, though I’m pretty sure they couldn’t get away with casting a white man in redface as a Comanche these day. Nor should they. But that was thirty years ago. Justin Trudeau hadn’t even opened his first can of shoe polish. This series will always have a place in my heart. If you haven’t seen it, rent it and binge it!

Streets of Laredo (1995) The last of the stories of the life of Woodrow Call takes place around 1890. Woodrow is getting old, doesn’t get around as well as he used to. But he takes a job to hunt down Joey Garza, a psychopathic young murderer who is robbing too many trains, and killing the passengers. He kills for fun, just for the kick of it. The railroad owner wants him stopped. Actually, he wants him killed.

Much has happened. Lorena (Sissy Spacek), in a stunning and unexpected twist, has married Pea Eye Parker, the absolute last guy I’d have picked for her. But he is safe and reliable, and I guess she needs that. She has had several children with him, and is happy until Pea Eye once more answers the summons of his Captain. The poor guy just can’t resist.

Once more McMurtry plays fast and loose with history, and sometimes it is annoying. Judge Roy Bean (Ned Beatty) wasn’t gunned down and hung on the front porch of the Jersey Lilly by Joey Garza. John Wesley Hardin (Randy Quaid) was far from the loser depicted here. But we do see some other historical figures, like Charlie Goodnight, the greatest cowman who ever lived.

James Garner is quite good taking over the role from Tommy Lee Jones. He does stoic and distant very well. All the acting is good, all the writing is good. Despite that, this is the weakest of the series. Well, one of them had to be, right? It has the usual surprises, things that never happen in a Western movie, such as Woodrow getting shot by Joey, and Lorena having to cut off his leg. Woodrow never catches up with Joey; in the end he is killed by his own mother (Sônia Braga, a Brazilian playing a Mexican), who has moved Heaven and Earth to protect him before. She loves him despite all his faults. But when the crazy fucker starts to drown his blind sister and retarded brother, it’s too much even for her.

There is a subplot involving Lorena and her overriding fear of Mox Mox, a murderous pyromaniac who was one of the losers who raped her while she was a prisoner of Blue Duck. He burned two little children alive in front of her. I’d be scared, too. For once some justice is done, when Woodrow gut-shoots him and leaves him out in the desert to die, slowly and painfully, I hope.

Wes Studi takes over the role of Famous Shoes. Sam Shepherd takes over for Pea Eye, a dubious casting decision in my opinion, though he does his best. George Carlin has a lot of fun as a ragged frontiersman. Charles Martin Smith is the dude from Back East who has never seen country without streetcars and telephone wires. The poor fellow is driven almost insane by the land and the weather and the people, and he comes to a bad end.

It occurred to me that, in a crazy way, getting his leg cut off might have been the best thing that ever happened to Woodrow Call, emotionally. Having to totally rely on someone else is something new to him, and when the blind girl bonds with him, he opens up to her more than he ever had with anyone else. I felt his last years on the ranch with Lorena might actually be good ones.