September 10, 2009

Cheryl St.John Dishes on Lonesome Dove

One of my favorite movies of all time happens to be a western. While there’s a whole lot of action and some gritty happenings, what the piece boils down to is relationships. Maybe that’s why the story reaches us on such a deep level. Lonesome Dove, the novel was written by Larry McMurtry, and became a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the first published book of the Lonesome Dove series.

I can’t even imagine the daunting task that native Texan and screenwriter Bill Wittliff took on when he adapted Larry McMurtry's novel to film. First, he needed to rein in the whopping 843 page story while still retaining its majestic essence. Wittliff's work was also made more difficult because, in the novel, McMurtry uses the narrator's voice to reveal information about characters and to describe events. To provide the same information in the film, Wittliff had to create dialogue and provide visual cues that didn’t exist.

A Southwestern Writers Collection is housed at Texas State and many of the original documents he used while creating this western classic can be viewed online at: The exhibit features storyboards, costume drawings, the actual costumes, photos, and even Gus's dead wrapped body. I’d love to visit!

The epic four-part six-hour mini-series focuses on the relationship of retired Texas Rangers and their adventures driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. McMurtry originally developed the tale in 1972 for a feature film entitled The Streets of Laredo (a title later used for the sequel), which was to have starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. That didn't happen, but thank goodness, McMurtry later resurrected the screenplay as a full-length novel. It deservingly became a bestseller and won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The mini-series won six Emmy Awards and was nominated for 13 others. Casting for this epic was pure genius. Who better to portray these multi-faceted aging Texas Rangers who to this day represent the epitome of courage, loyalty and everything we think of when we think American West than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones?

Robert Duvall is Captain Augustus McCrae, co-owner of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and considers himself the brains of the outfit. Generous, humorous, and lazy to the point of eccentricity, he serves as a foil to the more serious, practical Call. When not working, which he does as little as possible, Gus pursues his three chief interests in life: women, alcohol and cards. He is well known in the territory for his loud voice, superior eyesight and accuracy with a revolver.

Tommy Lee Jones is Captain Woodrow F. Call, Gus's partner in the company. Less verbose and chatty than McCrae, Call works long and hard and sees no reason why others should not do the same. A former Texas Ranger, he served with Gus when both were young men. Though Call has utter disdain for lazy men who drink and gamble their lives away, he has his own secret shame, which he hides carefully from his comrade. Call's ability to manage unmanageable horses is also well known. The two men bicker and disagree, but loyalty runs deep.

Danny Glover plays a magnificent role as Joshua Deets, an ex-slave and former Ranger. When the story starts he's a ranch hand at the company, and on the drive, he serves as scout. A remarkable tracker and morally upright man, he is one of the few men Call respects and trusts.

Before he hit the NY streets as a cop, Rick Shroder played Newt Dobbs, young orphan raised by Gus and Call. His mother was a prostitute named Maggie Tilton, who died when he was a child. He knows his mother was a prostitute, and has no idea who his father might be. Most other observers, notably Gus and Clara Allen, are quite certain that Call is his father. Call eventually comes to this realization privately, but is never able to admit it explicitly. When he puts Newt in charge of the new ranch during his absence, we see his only concession to recognizing the young man as his son.

Anjelica Houston is Clara Allen, a former love of Gus’s. She declined his marriage proposals years ago, and now lives in Nebraska, married to a horse trader who’s in a coma after being kicked in the head by a horse. The Allens have two girls, though she is afflicted deeply by the death of her sons. Though separated from Gus by many miles and years, she still holds him fondly in her heart. In contrast, she has utter contempt for Call.

Diane Lane is the lovely young Lorena Wood, a kind-hearted young woman who was forced into prostitution by her lover, then abandoned in Lonesome Dove. Lorena is silent, strong willed, and intimidating, refusing to submit meekly to her various admirers. Discontent with her line of work, Lorie hopes to leave the dead town and find her way to San Francisco. Gus is her champion, and no lady could ask for a better one.

Secondary threads with characters of July and Almira Johnson and Blue Duck are intricately woven into the plot and throughout the journey of the cattle drive. You can’t help but be enamored by the characters and caught up in their adventures. Watching the story unfold brings laughter and tears every time. The music that accompanies the panoramic scenes does a beautiful job of enhancing the grandeur of the vast landscape and feel of the untamed west. I often listen to the original soundtrack, composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Lonesome Dove spawned the follow-up miniseries, Return to Lonesome Dove.

Trivia facts about Lonesome Dove:

Robert Duvall, who has appeared in over 80 movies, told CBS that Augustus McCrae, the character he played in Lonesome Dove, was his all time favorite role. We can see why.

The characters of July Johnson and Roscoe bear the same names as the sheriff and his sidekick who track James Stewart and Dean Martin in the movie Bandolero! (1968). Also, the sequence where Stewart and Martin discuss Montana resembles a similar scene in Lonesome Dove.

The book, and the character Gus, is mentioned in country singer George Strait's song "That's My Kind Of Woman."

So, fess up. How many times have you watched Lonesome Dove? Did you think return to Lonesome Dove lived up to the first? Have you read or watched Streets of Laredo?

If you’re a western lover and you’ve never seen this movie, well, I’m just sad for you. But your situation is subject to change. Head for your local video store!

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Connie said...

Lonesome Dove is a favorite of mine, both the books and movie. The characters are wonderful and the story so well written!

Cheryl St.John said...

I completely agree! Thanks for stopping by, Connie.

Vickie McDonough said...

I have watched parts of Lonesome Dove and the sequel but haven't been able to watch it straight through. Cheryl, I've read some of your books in the past and am thrilled to see that you're doing inspirationals. Yeah!

Tanya Hanson said...

Cheryl, this blog is fantastic and reminds me I need to watch LD again. oxoxoxox

Robert Duvall is also excellent in Broken Trail.

~Tanya Hanson

Edna said...

Very good movie and book, I like to read about the old west, wish some of those good ole westerns were still on TV. Would be a lot better that all those realitity shows (I hate those things) guess that what happens when we get old and the younger generation taked over. :-(


Carol Burge said...

Lonesome Dove is my favorite movie, too. I don't know how many times I've watched it, but I know it's a LOT!

I have the book, The LD Book of Photographs, the movie and all the sequels, in both vhs and DVD. :)

I don't think any of the sequels were as good as LD, but I still love them all.

Stephen Bly said...

Cheryl: Thanks for the good article! I have watched Lonesome Dove at least 3 times...and no, didn't think the return was as good. I've read the book Streets of Laredo, but haven't watched movie...yet.