This past Christmas holiday I took my first road trip out of the state with my two daughters. We traveled to Alamogordo, New Mexico and it took me nine hours just to get out of Texas and only thirty minutes to get to my final destination in New Mexico. The expansive drive gave me a great appreciation for the distance travelled by the endearing men of Lonesome Dove and that was with me driving at 80mph, I cannot imagine riding a horse or walking only a few miles a day. The distance also amplifies the aching desperation felt when anyone travelled from one place to another especially in Texas.
You saw it in Red River when John Wayne leaves the drive right in the beginning. You also feel it when Jubal Quimper leaves to take care of business up north. The sentimental wave of emotion felt by Gus as he looks around Lonesome Dove before leaving on the trail is another good example of this fear of never returning; the film best captured this moment. I’m sure if I was heading to New Mexico by horse and/or foot I’d be filled with the fear and apprehension of never returning as well. When comparing the movie to the book, I’m surprised that the film was as the book’s depiction.
I find that refreshing and appealing since in many instances the film adaptation of a book can become a whole new story. The Lonesome Dove series took the actual storyline, setting and characters from the book enhancing them so the audience was able to identify with the author’s vision. Of course as with any film adaptation there were a few scenes shortened and some parts were even cut out completely. In the series two characters I missed were Wilbarger the traveler most amused by Gus and Louisa the lonely farm woman who tries to keep Roscoe on as her husband but in retrospect I can understand why they were left out of the film.
The ending disappointed me the most, especially the death of Gus my favorite character. At first I couldn’t quite understand his last wish of wanting to be buried in Texas when he could be buried near Clara on her land. Even more baffling was Cal’s determination to carry out his request; I was just as upset as Clara at the idea of Cal taking Gus’s corpse all the way to Texas from Montana. The gesture itself I could identify with but with regard to the danger and distance of the trip it seemed to me that Gus could not have been in his right mind when he made that request.
Look at how many people were buried along the drive—Sean O’Brien, Roscoe Brown, Joe Allen, Janey, Jake Spoon and Deets. I’m sure they would have all liked to have been buried in a special place but their circumstances would not allow for that. Watching the film gave me a different perspective and a better understanding of the relationship between Cal and Gus. The ending although still upsetting was full of compassion and after visibly watching the scene where Gus passes away, I began to change my mind about his burial. There was so much unsaid between the two friends but the light banter spoke volumes.
Even more heart wrenching was Cal’s conflicted heart over taking Gus home. The scene of the film where Clara gets angry with Cal shows it all. You can see how Clara’s words impacts Cal and his resigned look of emotion shows me that he agrees with her speech. His breakdown begins there at Clara’s ranch and he uses the trip to Texas as a way to grieve for his friend. By the time he buries Gus, Cal seems to realize where he made his mistakes in life with first Maggie and then with Newt. Captain Cal Woodrow will not confess his regrets but he seems resigned to accept there are things he should have done differently.
Reading more about Larry McMurtry and his life also shed light on the way the ending unfolded. I was surprised to read that his previous books were more contemporary and that he viewed the frontier as being over romanticized. According to one article McMurtry thought he had written an anti-Western; one that focused on the intricate, urban truth of the real West. When I take into account McMurtry’s true intent along with the loosely based depiction of Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight true life adventure, I can identify with his choice on how it ends.
Gus’s request to be buried in Texas is one of the details taken from the real account of Goodnight-Loving trail drive but with the addition of Clara to the fictional story that request made less sense. In the end what saved it all for me was the film because when Cal suggests to Gus that he be buried on Clara’s ranch, Gus tells Cal he doesn’t want to be buried near Clara’s husband and that is understandable. When writing Lonesome Dove, McMurtry was attempting to capture a true depiction of the West without the romantic undertone I mentioned earlier.
I now understand completely what he was attempting. The book is romantic but only because the characters are human and have the desire to be loved; don’t we all? It’s the raw, harsh, downfalls that make the reader indentify with McMurtry’s vision, for instance the water moccasin attack on young Sean, or the cold-blooded outlaws that Jake gets involved with, or Elmira the desperate woman who risks her life and abandons both of her children in search of a man. Let us not forget the abduction of Lorena and the graphic details of her captivity along with the murder of Roscoe, Janey and little Joe.
These depictions are upsetting and not in any way romantic but again what readers fell in love with is the land, the heartache and characters themselves. Again McMurtry’s story is simple but full of substance brought on by these characters; none of them are insignificant and they are all given a larger than life persona. Again my favorite character was Augustus McCrae. If I had to travel for months on the open range of Texas I cannot think of anyone I’d like to keep me company more than Gus. This is a cowboy that is not afraid to live his life; who is not afraid to show his heart and speak his mind.
He loves laughter and living just like his feminine counterpart—Clara; from the first chapter I was charmed by Gus’s charisma and sarcastic nature. You could tell visually wasn’t as handsome as Cal but he would have had no problem charming me into a poke. He’s the type of man who can make a woman feel special and make a man feel like he’s missing out on something important in life. I was afraid that Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Gus would not live up to my expectations but he embodied that role perfectly. His caring nature mixed in with his fiery attitude made me feel excited to watch every scene he was in.
The most memorable characteristic of Gus is his fearlessness; his carefree approach to life finally caught up with him in the scene where he initiates a buffalo chase over a ridge not knowing or caring what awaits. All the characters of Lonesome Dove were accurately cast in my opinion but the one that was most dynamic was Cal. Tommy Lee Jones always does a great job of acting without using a lot of words and that’s exactly the kind of man Cal was; a man of few words. Cal’s character in the book did not play out as deep as Gus’s character but in the film he exceeded the part.
I felt more connected to the Cal in the film that his character in the book. Another scene that brought tears to my eyes (along with many of the others) was the interaction between father and son, where Cal gives Newt his watch but cannot quite bring himself to tell him he’s his father. The exchange is touching and I was relieved that in the film Newt gets the message. They both know who they were to one another and it is acted out in a realistic way since men are not know for how well they express themselves verbally.
Angelica Huston and Rick Schroder were among my other favorites in the mini-series. There is not another woman I can imagine as Clara; she was sturdy yet feminine, strong-willed yet patient and she possessed the attitude of a man with the class of a woman. The excitement and love she displayed at seeing Gus again made her appear young and carefree but the tenderness she showed Newt showed she is still a loving mother. As for Rick Schroder, I did not think he would be able to put across a convincing performance as Newt but he proved me wrong.
On film Newt’s naive and insecure demeanor was ever present in his dialogue and body language especially when he was forced to interact with Cal. By the end of the film he has grown into his skin and is maturing into a confident, skilled cattleman; making his father proud. The other characters were also represented as accurately as I imagined but I think a lot of that stems from the dedication and enthusiasm of the actors. At the time of filming in Austin there was a sense of euphoria and historic wistfulness among the cast and crew in anticipation of being a part of such an epic project.
In an article covering the 20th anniversary of Lonesome Dove, Tommy Lee Jones is quoted as saying, “Everybody that worked on the film cared a great deal about the authenticity of it. They felt it was mainly their responsibility to do the right by the book. ” The passion these actors invested into bringing McMurtry’s novel to life is apparent in the finished product; this is ironic compared to the author’s view of his now classic novel. It is clear that Larry McMurtry was not whole heartedly devoted to his work on Lonesome Dove nor was he prepared for the impact it made to readers, historians and Hollywood.