A look at the mini-series "LONESOME DOVE"
Duvall (Left) and Jones (Right)
Two great stars with great on-screen chemestry
The 1989 television miniseries Lonesome Dove is a very faithful and detailed adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel. The televised version retains the spirit of the book, as well as the themes of male bonding, personal honor, growing up, growing old and dealing with loss. Starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Lane and Chris Cooper, and co-written by McMurtry himself, the TV movie is an epic retelling of the story done with great fidelity to the source material.
There's something so iconic about the western genre and also so uniquely American. Robert Duvall once said, "The English have Shakespeare; we have the Western." This is a wonderful mini-series based on one of the great modern western novels.
Duvall and Jones perfectly embody the literary versions of the characters Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call. They play two men searching for redefinition in their lives and only finding a lasting value in their lifelong friendship, although that is the last thing they would ever admit. The film keeps this close bond of the characters central to the story. Gus (Robert Duvall) and Call (Tommy Lee Jones) go on the 3,000 mile cattle drive because Gus is hoping to reconnect with a lost love from his youth and Call is hoping for one last frontier to conquer. Despite their illustrious past as renowned Texas Rangers, they don’t have much to show for their lives except each other. As Gus says to Call, “Did it ever occur to you that everything we done was a mistake?” The only thing they really have is their friendship. Toward the end of the story, an old love of Gus’ berates Call for coming between she and Gus, saying that she couldn’t fight Call for Gus’ attention day and night. Duvall and Jones excellently capture the attitude of unspoken affection between two rugged, old-fashioned men, which is the heart of both the literary and televised versions of the story.
From the beginning, we see Call (Jones) chiding Gus (Duvall) for being lazy and for eating and drinking too much. “If you ever get tire of loafing you could get a job waiting tables” Call says. Although the comment is meant as a jibe, Gus doesn’t take the remark to heart. He never does when Call scolds him. Gus just makes a joke about it, recalling his days on a riverboat and simply goes on with what he is doing. The way Duvall plays the scene, with a mirthful smile during the exchange to show that he enjoys their little spats; it demonstrates the comfort he finds in his ritual of needling his old friend.
Call is a very stoic, imperturbable, emotionally controlled man who doesn’t speak unless he’s got something important to say or an order to give. The only why you ever know he is upset is when he’s even more silent than usual. Tommy Lee Jones emulates the literary version of Call by being seemingly dispassionate and only showing hints of emotion at appropriate moments. Jones plays Call with a deadpan look and an often monotone voice. Like the literary Call, the TV version is always intense and authoritative but almost never loses control, except under rare circumstances, such as when he sees his son Newt being beaten by a man named Dixon. Even then, he refuses to admit that emotion was involved in his actions and brushes it off as being the result of his distaste for rude behavior. That scene in the film tells us all we need to know. This scene is well played by Jones who quickly switches from blind, uncontrolled rage back to Call’s usual cold-as-ice demeanor, as if a switch had been pushed.
Duvall’s portrayal of Gus McCrea is wonderfully charming and likable. Duval said that this was his personal favorite role and be makes Gus so personable, with a sense of humor and a hedonistic attitude toward life. We know he prefers gambling, drinking and sex over work and duty. These aspects of Gus are perfectly brought to life by Duvall, who gives Gus a magnetic appeal. After seeing Duvall’s performance, you can understand why Gus is so well liked by everyone in the film. Gus constantly refers to the all-male ranch hands of the Hat Creek Cattle Company as “girls”, which might earn anyone else a punch in the face but no one ever gets mad at Gus. He’s just too likable. It takes an actor with Duvall’s charisma and talent to inject the sort of incredible charm into a character that the viewer feels it right through the screen.
During the scene where Gus dies, Duvall and Jones do an impressive job of bringing emotion to a scene between two men who would never express emotion to each other. Gus is trying to laugh in the face of impending death while Call is trying to remain as stoic as usual. Duvall and Jones manage to capture the hidden turmoil going on under the character’s outer façade. Gus’ final words in the film are “Woodrow, quite a party.” There is some extra dialogue in the book after that line which isn’t in the TV film, but by making this line Gus’ last, it sums up that his adventures with Woodrow Call were the main substance of his life and what he will be remembered for.
The final scene in the film finds Call alone, having kept his promise to deliver the late Gus’ body to his requested resting place. Call wanders around their old town where they’d run the cattle company for ten years, feeling directionless and lost. Without his life-long friend, Call doesn’t have the motivation or the strength to conquer another frontier. The final scene talks about how an old acquaintance killed himself because he lost the girl he loved. This parallel’s Call’s feeling of being dead inside without Gus. The last line in the film regards a reporter who’s trying to get a few words from the reticent Call. He describes Cal as a man of vision. Call mutters sadly “A hell of a vision”, indicating that his present does match the vision he had of the future because he’s lost too much. He has lost a lot of things and a lot of people in the past and was able to deal with those, but the loss of Gus finally breaks his spirit and leaves him a lost soul.
If you’ve never seen the mini-series’, it’s definitely worth watching.