1 9 8 9 (USA)
4 x 100 minute episodes
Faithfully based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry, the eight-hour four-part CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove was a thinking person’s Western in the tradition of such classic films as The Searchers (1956).
At a poetic pace, the story concerned a group of retired Texas Rangers driving cattle north from Texas to Montana, with the trail standing as a metaphor for life in all its cruel, astounding variety.
Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow F Call (Tommy Lee Jones) seemed unlikely candidates for adventuring with their rangering days long behind them and their south Texas Lonesome Dove ranch safe and prosperous.
Woodrow was a driven man with no use for money, women or fun who survived by bossing the hands: their former scout, Deets (Danny Glover); ex-ranger Pea Eye (Timothy Scott); and young Newt (Ricky Schroder) – who may have been Woodrow’s son.
More philosophical and more devoted to life, Gus whiled away his time drinking and visiting the local “sporting girl” Lorena (Diane Lane).
Woodrow and Gus were an odd pair, which is what made them so fascinating.
Off in Arkansas, another ex-Ranger, Jake Spoon (Robert Urich) fires a buffalo rifle in a bar and accidentally kills a dentist across the street.
Like a cue ball shot into racked billiard balls, the errant bullet sends a cast of thousands into motion, careening into each other in totally unexpected – and often fatal – ways.
Jake runs to Lonesome Dove and casually suggests the cattle drive. The odyssey immediately appeals to Woodrow, and Gus goes along in the hope of finding his lost love, Clara (Anjelica Huston).
Lorena hitches up with Jake, who is fleeing Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper). When July’s wife Elmira (Glenne Headly) goes off on her own to find an ex-lover, more people head off to find July.
All these travellers lead us through a litany of Western characters and disasters – snakes, stampedes, Indians, outlaws, ambushes, hangings, scalpings and natural calamities. Sometimes death comes from evil people like Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest); sometimes it comes from carelessness, and sometimes it just comes on its own, inexplicably.
Screenwriter Bill Wittliff condensed McMurtry’s massive book admirably, eliminating some characters and incidents without losing McMurtry’s tone or narrative drive. But all things considered, the book made it to the screen remarkably unscathed.
Beautifully shot by Douglas Milsome and gorgeously scored by Basil Poledouris, Lonesome Dove was a critical and commercial success.
Viewers flocked to the series, making it the biggest event of the 1988-1989 TV season. Its rich narrative encompassed courage, mule-headed obstinacy, loneliness, honour and sacrifice, and the series served as a respectful and yet critical portrait of the men America reveres as pioneers.
The miniseries received 18 Emmy nominations, including best miniseries and acting nods to Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Glenne Headly. It also received nominations for directing and writing. Curiously, the series was virtually ignored when it came time to hand out the awards.
Two sequel miniseries’ were produced – Return to Lonesome Dove (1993) and Streets of Laredo (1995). A 44 episode television series – Lonesome Dove: The Series (later titled Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years) – was produced between 1994 and 1996. All had different casts.
Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae
Woodrow F Call
Tommy Lee Jones
Pea Eye Parker
Sheriff July Johnson
Elmira Boot Johnson
Sonny Carl Davis
Jorge Martínez de Hoyos
Jimmy Ray Pickens