Lonesome Dove (1989)

Based on the bestselling novel by Larry McMurtry, this miniseries is considered by many to be the greatest western of all time. In terms of filmmaking, it certainly is, but overall leaves a little something to be desired.
Life is routine and quiet in the small Texas town of Lonesome Dove. Resting on the banks of the river, the most excitement to be gained is sneaking over the border into Mexico and stealing horses back from the thieves that stole them in the first place! This life, filled with frequent trips to the local saloon and liberal use of the rocking chairs on the front porch, suits Gus (Robert Duvall) just fine. Years after being a Texas Ranger, a lazy existence is more than he can hope for, but his life is about to be turned inside out when an old friend and former fellow lawman turns up. Jake (Robert Urich) is full of stories about the great untamed wilds of Montana and how a man can be a monarch of his ranch in the unsettled north. This ignites a passion in the quiet but determined Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) to rustle up a herd of cattle and horses and trek 25,000 miles to start a cattle ranch. He recruits his friends and decides to take along the orphan boy Newt (Rick Schroder) for good measure. Jake isn't all that interested in driving cattle -- he's managed to make the local saloon girl, Lorena (Diane Lane) fall in love with him and has promised to take her to Sa Francisco. But when he abandons her to go play poker in a local town and she is kidnapped by a ruthless Indian, it's up to Gus to rescue her.
In the meantime, Jake is wanted for the accidental shooting of the mayor of a town in Arkansas, and the local sheriff, July (Chris Cooper) has been coerced into setting out after him -- with his stepson in tow, little realizing that the second he is out of town, his nary-do-well wife will hightail it to the west to find the man she really loves. This adventure will put him on a path that will sooner or later cross with Gus, as Indian territory, wild buffalo, rising streams, and dust storms lie in their way on their great cattle drive to Montana. In terms of pure cinematic entertainment, this ranks with the finest. It's a classic western in every sense of the word with unforgettable characters and untold perils. It has an astonishing cast (that also includes Danny Glover and Angelica Huston), is cautious about being realistic to the time period, and above all is not politically correct -- more than once, our heroes encounter murderous, scalping Indians. The six hours never seem particularly long because we're so involved in the lives of the different cattle men, and I was pleased at the level of authenticity that went into the driving scenes. The actors trained long and hard to learn to ride and do it naturally -- some of them with more experience even contribute to their own stunts, such as Duvall being bucked off a spooked horse (that was not intentional, but made the scene, so it was left in) and Jones handling a spirited white mare with marvelous ease. There is also a certain amount of sardonic humor involved, along with a pair of pet pigs that follow Gus along on the drive!
Westerns have never really been my brand of whisky even growing up on a cattle ranch -- probably because, as this series proves, they are more often than not just a little bit depressing with characters dying off left and right. Indians get them. Snakes get them. Or they wind up running with the wrong crowd and quite simply get hanged! Don't expect everyone to live to the end -- don't even expect half of them to make it. In the last hour is the most heartbreaking death, one that reverberates in all their lives and is guaranteed to make the audience more than a bit mournful, but our emotions are tugged more than once in the course of these adventures. Some of the deaths seem even rather pointless and unneeded. That was my first issue with the series. My second is the over-emphasis on "whorehouses" that just made me uncomfortable. There's not a lot of visual problems, but for the first two hours Gus does nothing but pester Lorena for "a poke." Now and again she takes his money and him upstairs. Mentions of "whores" pop up frequently, sometimes every other sentence. Conversation revolves around everyone in town having had a particular woman. Gus strips down to his long underwear and cavorts playfully with Lorena in a stream. Jake insists that Lorena service only him -- but he doesn't exactly treat her well. On more than one occasion, he slaps her across the face. The abuse is far more brutal when she is kidnapped by a gang of outlaws. There, the beating escalates to being kicked and punched -- in addition to being raped (off screen, implied). Another woman is almost raped (a man throws her to the ground, and climbs on top of her) until another man pulls the first one off and bashes his head against the wagon wheel. Newt and his young friends are giddy at the thought of visiting a whorehouse for the first time, and traipse gladly in for their turn "riding the bucking bronco."
The violence is frequent and sometimes graphic -- Call becomes so infuriated when he discovers a scout whipping Newt with a horse whip that he nearly beats the man to death with a branding iron; another man is nearly beaten to death by having his head bashed against a hard surface. Gus responds to a bartender's cheek by slamming his face into the bar, successfully breaking his nose, then hitting him across the head with the end of his revolver, knocking him unconscious. Other fist fights escalate into bloodshed. Hundreds of people and Indians are shot and killed; a man is impaled through his chest with a spear; arrows are dug out of legs; bodies strew the trail after a massacre. We see settlers devoid of their scalps, and one man being scalped, blood streaming across his face. A man is attacked by a mass of water moccasins and bitten to death. A band of outlaws shoots two farmers for fun, then strings up their bodies and sets them on fire. We watch four men being hanged, one at a time; another leaps out a third story window and falls to the ground, taking a deputy with him. Two children are murdered (off screen) and their bodies are briefly shown. Buzzards pick at a corpse. Animal lovers will be disconcerted by a scene in which Gus kills his horse in order to use its body as a shield while he fights off Indians. (The actual impact is unseen.) Other horses elsewhere are killed; it's stated that a poor village has stolen horses and butchered one of them for food. We see bloodied remains. A man is shown skinning a dead snake for supper. There is a scattering of general profanities, and one use of GD.
In terms of being a good western, Lonesome Dove is the staple against which all westerns are measured -- and none of them since have ever hit the mark. It is a sprawling, epic story that explores the dangerous and less glamorous side of the wild west and the immense sacrifices that were made along the way. You will never forget these characters -- their heroism and sometimes fatal mistakes. But the over-emphasis on prostitution severely diminished my enjoyment of the miniseries.

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