I made the mistake of avoiding this King of epic mini-series for many years. The title made me think romance, and I didn’t think a primetime TV mini-series could be that good. I also didn’t know how great a writer Larry McMurtry is. Lonesome Dove is every bit as worthy as the much-lauded Band of Brothers, and perhaps even paved the way for such violent epics of great scope. Originally written as a screenplay for John Wayne and Peter Bogdanovich by McMurtry, the Duke bowed out and the writer bought his script back, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and then Hollywood wanted it again. But instead of cutting it down to movie length, it was given the full spread of over 6 hours of primetime television- 8 hours with commercials. And it’s worth every minute.
American Movie Classics HD played it last weekend, restored to widescreen glory. In the age of “Deadwood” I was concerned that it would feel sanitized, and while it is safe for TV, it’s bloody and bawdy, befitting the Western mythos from which our country developed. The story revolves around two old retired Texas Rangers, the likeable, fun-loving and philosphical Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall), and his quiet old friend Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones). They’ve got a ranch on the border with Mexico, but Call has plans for cattle in Montana. The story takes its time setting up, letting us get acquainted with the characters. There are a lot of them, but Gus is the center.
We also meet Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) who’s henpecked by his sister-in-law into hunting down ex-Ranger Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), who killed his brother in an accident. Now Jake is riding with Call and McCrae, as they undertake one of the first big cattle drives across the now cinematically famous Red River. Their paths will cross many times. Jake falls in with the rather gorgeous town whore Lorena (Diane Lane) and she ends up on the drive with them. But Gus has a liking for her too; he knows Jake isn’t true and Gus has a habit of stealing women away from him. Danny Glover plays Joshua Deets, a driver and excellent tracker; Newt (Ricky Schroeder) is Call’s bastard son, but he doesn’t recognize him.
Simpletons are a staple of TV mini-series like “The Stand” and we get two of them here! Roscoe Brown is July’s dimwit deputy, and he’s played to endearing perfection by Barry Corbin. Best known to me as the General in Wargames who says “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it would do any good!” he was also in No Country for Old Men. He’s barely recognizable here and really gets into the part. As soon as his story arc ends we get Big Zwey, a more violent type who’s moon-eyed for July’s wandering wife Elmira. He smashes Steve Buscemi’s face in against a wagon wheel. Steve’s quite good in this, and it’s the first Western I’d seen him in.
The acting is some of the best you’ll see from these actors. Robert Urich of “Spenser” and The Ice Pirates, is a wonder as Jake Spoon, a flawed man who is a mere shade of a lawman when faced with Gus and McCrae. Ricky Schroeder . We’ve come to expect great things from Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and they certainly deliver here. Jones plays the driven, ambitious tragic figure to a tee, while Duvall is the more human of the two. Both are capable of heroism, but Duvall’s McCrae is the one we’d want to have a drink with. He hunts down Blue Duck when he kidnaps Lorena; he smashes a disrespectful bartender’s face in when he talks down to them. Call is the man who does the impossible, at great detriment to his relationships around him; he’s larger than life, but McCrae is the one who lives it. His motto translates to “a grape is changed by living with other grapes.” He improves the vintage of those around him, while Call turns them bitter with neglect.
Diane Lane has never stood out to me, but perhaps that is her strength. She becomes the role, and doesn’t impose her personality on it. Her Lorena is effortlessly desirable, and Gus is the only one who sees her as a person. The other strong female role is Anjelica Huston’s Clara Allen, Gus’s old unrequited love, a strong woman who ends up delivering Elmira’s baby as she seeks her own old love.
Tommy Lee Jones is well known for evoking great emotion with a stone face and cold stare, but here he’s quite the physical actor on horseback. If he was any more comfortable riding, he’d be a centaur. He performed all his own stunts, even breaking a stallion; the actor has long bred horses and it makes him a perfect choice here. When two hands fight, he breaks it up by riding up within an inch of them, as naturally as if he’d turned around and grabbed them by the ears. When Newt is being whipped by an Army quartermaster who wants to requisition one of their horses, Tommy barrels his own steed into the man’s and unhorses him, one hell of a stunt. This also shows Call’s unspoken love for his son, as he nearly beats the man to death with a branding iron.
This is an epic mini-series, and the story is one you should watch yourself. Two of our best living Western actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, should be all you need to know. This lives up to its stellar reputation, and stands by Band of Brothers as one of the best mini-series ever made. It is available on widescreen DVD and Blu-Ray. The HD presentation on AMC was stunning and the locations make the barrens of Texas and the wilds between it and Montana come alive. This is one of those stories that makes me think, “why the hell didn’t I watch this sooner?”