Nominated in all possible Emmy categories and winner of 7 awards, Lonesome Dove remains the gold standard for the TV miniseries format. The show starred two Oscar winners (by now that number has doubled, with two others being Oscar nominees). Though it runs about six and a half hours and was originally squeezed onto boxy televisions with an additional hour-and-a-half-worth of commercial interruptions, this faithful adaptation of Larry McMurtry's beloved novel is so ideally cast, richly textured, and picturesque that it easily stands amongst the best Western films ever made.
McMurtry's story, adapted by William D. Witliff, was originally conceived as a screen vehicle for John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. Coming full circle to a filmed treatment, Lonesome Dove features Robert Duvall, in his career-favorite role, paired with Tommy Lee Jones. Duvall plays Augustus "Gus" McCrae, a rancher what might be described as an excess of personality. McCrae works with his opposite and complement, the introverted Woodrow F. Call (Jones). "Two of the most famous Texas Rangers that ever lived" have tried out a quieter life as proprietors of the Hat Creek Cattle Company & Livery Emporium, but Call feels hemmed in, and McCrae still pines for the one that got away, Clara Allen (a warm and inviting Anjelica Huston). Tempted by their old partner Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), Gus and Woodrow come to terms for one more adventure to fulfill their inner drives: a perilous cattle drive from tamed Texas to the virgin land of Montana, incorporating a detour to Clara's homestead.
With an eye to period detail, Australian director Simon Wincer (The Phantom) sets an observational tone and a patient pace that allow for mature and sensitive drama and full-bodied frontier flavor. McMurtry's dialect and gift for character come through undiluted in Witliff's script, and the actors are more than up to the task. The all-time-great ensemble includes Diane Lane as reformed prostitute Lorena Wood, Danny Glover as trusted hand Joshua Deets, teenage Rick Schroder as Call's unacknowledged offspring Newt, Chris Cooper and Barry Corbin as hapless lawmen, Glenne Headley as Cooper's wayward wife, D.B. Sweeney as a cowboy with eyes for Lorena, and Frederic Forrest as "Comanchero butcher" Blue Duck (William Sanderson and Steve Buscemi also crop up in smaller roles).
From "Leaving" (Part I) to "Return" (Part IV), Lonesome Dove doubles as a satisfying Western adventure and an emotional archetypal narrative of personal discovery. McMurtry swiftly delineates rock-strong, larger-than-life men who tamed the West then moves in for an unprecedentedly intimate look at their psyches (it should also be noted that McMurtry writes robust roles for women). In the years following the '50s heyday of the Western and its stylish spaghetti Western revival in the '60s, the postmodern Western has often concerned itself with what happens to old cowboys: do they die or just fade away? Speaking of the Indians and bandits they once vanquished, Gus asks Woodrow, "Did it ever occur to you that everything we done was a mistake? Me and you done our work too well, Woodrow. Hell, we killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with, didn't we?"
The character's search for redefinition—Woodrow seeking a last frontier and Gus once more indulging the thrill of the romantic chase—leads to as much disappointment as fatalistic fulfillment, giving their story and their lives an authentically bittersweet (after)taste. Above all, they find meaning in their own lifelong friendship. In talking to Gus about Woodrow, Clara sees it clearly: "It rankles me he got so much of you and I got so little over the years." Climactically, Jones allows his signature reticence to crack into devastatingly full-blown emotion. Duvall is at his very best in Gus' randy skin, crafting a man who sucks out all the marrow of life and, in the process, proves irresistible to women and men alike. McMurtry's imagination, Wincer's skill, and the actors' genius harmonize to reveal the raw humanity underneath the icon of the American cowboy.
Genius Products presents this classic miniseries in a whole new light, namely in an anamorphic widescreen high-definition transfer showcased on two-disc Blu-Ray and DVD sets. Though the miniseries was original broadcast in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (once known as "fullscreen"), the original camera negative allowed digital technicians to get added visual information on the sides of the frame that would mitigate the vertical cropping. In fact, Wincer explains in the bonus features that initial Hollywood press and VIP screenings of the film were projected on film, in a widescreen ratio (he doesn't specify, but most likely 1.66:1). The disc offers a convincing 1.85:1 transfer that only rarely seems slightly crowded at the top or bottom of the frame. An added bonus: there's no sign of commercial fadeouts.
On Blu-Ray, Lonesome Dove often looks spectactular. On the bad side, there's a sometimes noticeable horizontal wobble, and the high-def transfer highlights certain flaws in the source: the nighttime and low-light scenes can be unnervingly grainy, with black turning to a noisy gray. But these images were always problematic, and more often than not, Lonesome Dove takes place in sun-dappled exteriors that look better and more detailed than I ever imagined they could. For a 1989 TV miniseries, Lonesome Dove looks pretty darn great. It also gets an audio upgrade to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, making the most of those cattle rushes and Basil Poledouris' music.
Disc one holds Parts I, II, and III, with Part IV on disc two along with the bonuses. Special Features (1:31:56 with "Play All" option) include the 1991 featurette "Lonesome Dove: The Making of an Epic" (49:28). This in-depth making-of explains the origins and production of the miniseries, including the Western trappings of horses, stunts and period costumes; we also hear the reflections of the director and actors on the miniseries' themes and characters. Interview participants include Simon Wincer, screenwriter Bill Wittliff, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Ricky Schroder, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, wrangler Rudy Ugland, Diane Lane, costume designer Van Broughton Ramsey, assistant costumer Taneia Lednicky, production designer Cary White, and stunt coordinator Bill Burton.
The oddly labelled "On Location with Director Simon Wincer" (15:06) is actually a brand-new retrospective interview with the director, who reveals the Texan apprehension at an Australian director adapting McMurtry, considers the show's "raciness" for TV, and recalls a number of interesting anecdotes from the production. He also explains how the two stars each made a useful suggestion during post-production.
"Blueprints of a Masterpiece: Original Sketches and Concept Drawings" (3:37) allows Wincer to show off the original pre-production art and his script, including shot lists and storyboards. It's interesting to have a host for material usually presented in gallery form, though an additional gallery feature might have been nice to allow for a better look.
"Remembering Lonesome Dove: Vintage Interviews with the Cast" (13:38) offers additional interview clips from the same interviews seen in "The Making of an Epic." D. B. Sweeney appears here, along with Jones, Lane, Huston, and Glover. (The menu mistakenly suggests you'll find Duvall here.) "Lonesome Dove Montage" (3:13) is a vintage highlight reel set to Poledouris' score, perhaps produced as a pre-broadcast promotional piece. "Interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry" (6:51) is a brief but very interesting discussion, shot on videotape, about the progression of the project from film to novel to miniseries, the meaning of the title, his writing process, and the relationship between Gus and Woodrow.
For those whose love for Lonesome Dove runs especially deep, there's a Limited Edition Gift Set with collectible wooden box, branded flask, deck of playing cards, and more. Gift set or no, Western lovers have cause to rejoice in this spiffy reissue of a TV masterpiece.
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