Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Robert Duvall,
Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Frederick Forrest, D.
B. Sweeney, Chris Cooper, Steve Buscemi, Ricky Schroeder, Anjelica Houston
Director: Simon Wincer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 373 Minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2008
“It’s not dying I’m talking about…it’s living.”
As the 80s drew to a close, it seemed the western was a genre on life support. What once was a great American movie tradition had seemed passé, and the untamed frontier with its stories of adventure, pioneers and gunplay was to be relegated to a cultural curiosity.
It wasn’t exactly the setting for the ambitious project of bringing Larry McMurty’s award-winning novel about a cross country cattle drive to life, but producer Suzanne de Passe had purchased the rights to the book years earlier, before it was even published. Finding an outlet was difficult…every studio passed, but when the novel was released to acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize, CBS came on board to make it into a miniseries.
The four-part six hour epic was studded with terrific stars, and at a time when television seemed particularly weak, Lonesome Dove stood out as a must-see event. Almost twenty years later, it stands as a landmark of modern television. McMurty’s tale brought to life a piece of Americana with rich characters and a lengthy but driven story, and the series, directed by Simon Wincer, opened up a new landscape of the old west for viewers around the world.
In one of his most heralded performances, Robert Duvall plays Gus McCrae, co-starring with Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow F. Call. Both are retired Texas rangers living the ranch life. With them is Newt (young Ricky Schroeder), whose story will get revealed over the course of events, Gus seems to enjoy the quiet living and his love for gambling and women, while Call is more serious and hardworking.
An old friend named Jake Spoon (Urich) returns after an absence where he inadvertently killed a town mayor, and has ideas of setting up a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Gus isn’t enthused, but Call’s desire to see the open range of Montana soon has the group forming and heading out, along with tracker friend Joshua Deets (Glover), the unlucky-in-love Dish Boggett (Sweeney), a pair of Irish immigrant twins and others, including town working girl Lorena Wood (Lane), who has romance with Jake, but takes up with the wily Gus from time to time.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch (couldn’t resist), the brother of the slain mayor, Sheriff July Johnson (Cooper) and his son have reluctantly taken up pursuit of Spoon. He knows the death was accidental, but the kin compel him to seek justice. He leaves behind a wife who soon takes advantage of his absence to search for her first husband.
Gus also has a chance along the way to reunite with his love, Clara (Houston), who has since taken up with a horse breeder. This means the teleplay offers everything you’d want in entertainment in abundance: romance, adventure, danger, friendship, betrayal, and the great American and Mexican landscapes, photographed lovingly and with great attention to detail.
I like Lonesome Dove. I can’t quite elevate it to the level of popular and critical acclaim it’s received over the years, but it’s impossible not to recognize it for the landmark achievement that it was. As I mentioned, I think the fact that the end of the 80s marked a particularly low ebb in television quality made a large scale and star powered production like this one really stand out.
The one thing that 80s TV served up well was the miniseries, with ones like this and The Thorn Birds filling the void of quality programming. Lonesome Dove won numerous Emmys, Golden Globes and other international awards. It’s no wonder it spawned several sequels, both in miniseries form and as a running television show, none of which quite equaled the event of the original.
It’s no wonder the series has had a pull on audiences for two decades. With the power of the cast, the lovingly filmed landscapes, and Larry McMurty’s epic, dramatic text, Lonesome Dove returned the western to glory and paved the way for the re-emergence of an American genre for the years to come.
BONUS TRIVIA: Tommy Lee Jones, an expert horseman in real life, refused the use of a stunt double for any of the riding scenes.
For the most part, this Blu-ray disc is a revelation of color and detail. It’s mostly perfect, interrupted by a few flaws here and there. Some night scenes look harsh and grainy, and a few open sky shots show a bit of artifacting. But apart from that, the outdoor settings and landscapes really come alive with vividness and crispness…safe to say, this is the best home video presentation of the miniseries yet.
The 5.1 offering has some fair dynamic range, and there are plenty of wide open spaces in the series to give the surrounds plenty of work with ambient effects. Not a lot of bass signal, but dialogue is cleanly rendered, and the music sounds quite good as well.
The disc includes a new 50 minute making-of documentary, plus interviews with the cast, director, and author Larry McMurty, along with a gallery of sketches and concept drawings.
Twenty years later, fans are still returning to Lonesome Dove. Now in widescreen and with full digital sound, this Blu-ray release marks the best ever way to view this slice of television history in the comfort of your own home.