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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 5/2/00

Lonesome Dove
1989 (2000) Quintex/Motown/RHI (Artisan)

review by Florian Kummert of The Digital Bits

Lonesome Dove Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C+

Specs and Features

360 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, dual-layered (DVD-18), Amaray keep case packaging, interview with producer Suzanne de Passe (on side A), interview with author Larry McMurtry (on side A), Western historical trivia (on side B), Western historical trivia game (on side B), TV trailer (on side A), cast and crew bios (on side B), production notes (on side B), scene access (20 chapters for each of four parts), film-themed menu screens with animation and music, languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus, Lonesome Dove, is an excellent novel in many ways. Intense and terribly well written, it captures an important part of the "American experience" of venturing into undiscovered country. When CBS turned it into a lavish and expensive six-hour miniseries in 1989, the producers took a big risk despite the novel’s fame. The western genre was on the verge on extinction at the time. Films like Silverado had misfired at the box office. And viewer interest in mini-series had waned over the years. But producer Suzanne de Passe believed in the project and she hit the jackpot. Lonesome Dove became one of the most highly rated and beloved mini-series of all time. It features terrific performances by a powerhouse cast: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Rick Schroder, Glenne Headley, Chris Cooper and Anjelica Huston. The series’ success paved the way for productions like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven.

Set in the 1870s, Lonesome Dove tells the story of two retired Texas Ranger captains, Augustus McCrae (Duvall) and Woodrow F. Call (Jones), who have run a cattle company near the town of Lonesome Dove on the Rio Grande. Call is a grumpy workhorse, losing himself and his old memories and spirit of adventure in the day-to-day chores of ranch work. Gus, by contrast, works no more than he absolutely has to. He sits on his porch all day long, sips his whiskey and recalls the days of glory he and Call enjoyed when they were fighting Indians and Mexican bandits along the Texas frontier.

Into this complacent atmosphere rides an old companion, Jake Spoon, who is fleeing murder charges in Arkansas. He tells his buddies of the lush grasslands of Montana and brings up the idea to gather a herd and drive north to claim a ranch and a new life for themselves in the valleys of the high Rockies. The cowboys put together a herd of a few thousand longhorn cattle and remuda, and the drive begins.

Jake refuses to work the herd as it heads north, but rather follows along at a distance in company with Lorena, the beautiful prostitute of Lonesome Dove, whom he promised to take to San Francisco, but for whom he has no real affection at all. Along the epic 2,500 mile trip, the herd experiences just about every adversity one can imagine: swollen rivers, thunderstorms, sandstorms, stampedes, horse rustlers, snakes, drought, Indians and the danger of an undiscovered country where no white man has gone before.

Both the book and the miniseries work so well because of the perfectly crafted flesh-and-blood characters. Most of what we usually take as western characters are just stock figures. But Gus and Call have a heart and a soul. Gus, the frontier philosopher, hardly ever shuts up. He shares his vast knowledge with whoever is in earshot. Call, by contrast, is a taciturn man who never displays affection and humor. Both men embody the myth of the Texas Ranger. Their commitment to the lawless codes that govern the unsettled West is as steadfast as is their personal loyalty to each other.

Director Simon Wincer uses most of the novel’s subplots to his advantage; such as the story line of July Johnson, the Arkansas sheriff who sets out to track down Jake Spoon, or the plot of July’s estranged and runaway pregnant wife, Elmira, who gives up her marriage and her family to see her former lover, a convicted murderer. A lot of territory is covered (literally) over four episodes. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff translated the novel almost verbatim to the screen. It’s got a lot going for it. Apart from the dragging first forty minutes, the mini-series is TV entertainment as good as it gets. Robert Duvall pulls off a brilliant performance. I watched the show on two days and was totally hooked. I especially enjoyed the salty dialogue, which is far above the level of contemporary productions. Hey, even Steve Buscemi (before he became a big shot in Hollywood) has a tiny role.

Artisan Entertainment presents Lonesome Dove on one DVD-18 disc (their second, after Stephen King’s The Stand), with two 90-minute episodes on each side. For a ten-year-old TV show, the full-screen picture looks very good. Some of the scenes differ in quality. There are a few sequences with moire and apparent artifacting, but for most of the lengthy running time, I was very pleased with the picture. Contrast and blacks are solid. So are the fleshtones. Those guys on screen looked like healthy cowboys from Texas. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound does a fine job. It has punch and is presented at a comfortable listing level. The dialogue is clear, without any background noise. A 5.1 remix would have been marvelous, but there’s nothing to complain about the sound.

How about the supplementals? Well, Artisan did put some nice extra stuff on the two sides of the disc. Unfortunately, the lengthy interview with Larry McMurtry ranks among the most boring conversations I’ve ever experienced in my life. Avoid the dude! Producer Suzanne de Passe has more interesting things to say, but she didn’t exactly blow me out of my chair, either. Other extras include fun trivia games about westerns, cast and crew bios and production notes. And there is a TV trailer, or should I rather say, a commercial for the DVD.

It’s nice to have this excellent show on one disc. Saddle your horses and get the Lonesome Dove DVD.

Florian Kummert

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