Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Lonesome Dove – Perhaps the Best Western Ever Made

Written by Larry McMurtry & William D Wittliff
Directed by Simon Wincer

It was the book no one wanted. Peter Bogdonovich wanted to do a two-hour movie with Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. It just wouldn’t have worked as anything less than a mini-series, however, with all of the intricate plots and side-plots. Many of them would have had to have been dropped and the story crammed into two hours wouldn’t have nearly resembled the novel upon which it was based.

The story of two former Texas Rangers who have settled into the monotonous life of ranchers in south Texas along the Rio Grande. Woodrow Call (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus McCrae (portrayed by Robert Duvall) spend their days puttering around the ranch, occasionally going into the small town, and heading over to Mexico to steal horses from a bandit who seems to steal them back in a never-ending circle. The problem is Call still hears a call for adventure while Gus is fine with the situation. He goes into town at night, which consists of all of about five other people, including a local prostitute, Lori (portrayed by Diane Lane) who is sweet on him. Gus still carries something of a torch for an old flame by the name of Clara (portrayed by Angelica Huston), who’s residing in Ogalala, Nebraska. One of their ranch hands, Dish (portrayed by D.B. Sweeney) is sweet on Lori himself.

When an old friend and former Ranger, Jake Spoon (portrayed by Robert Urich) comes to town, he sparks an interest in a cattle drive to Montana – a “cattlemen’s paradise”. Back in Arkansas, Jake had some trouble with his accidental shooting of the town’s Mayor. That doesn’t stop the mayor’s brother, July Johnson (portrayed by Chris Cooper) who’s the town’s sheriff, from coming after him, albeit reluctantly. At his July’s wife (portrayed by Glenne Headley) urging, he brings along his step-son Joe. This is so she can run off after an old flame, Dee Boot.

Also living on the ranch is Newt (portrayed by Rick Schroeder). He’s the son of the town prostitute before Lori, and there’s some debate as to whether Jake or Call is his father, although the nod seems to be toward Jake initially. Gus and Call took him in after his mother died nine years earlier. Deets (portrayed by Danny Glover) is a freed black man and Pea Eye (portrayed by Tim Scott).

The story of the cattle drive is central to the mini-series. It ran eight hours with commercials on network television back in 1989, and the two-disc DVD collection will run about 7 1/2 hours of viewing time, plus the extras. That may sound long, but the story is handled so well and moves along with such a compelling plot that I hardly realized it was truly that long until I looked it up. I have watched the series a few times, and it never seems to get old. The scenery is outstandingly beautiful. From Texas all the way to Montana are beautiful shots of nature and the landscape as the men make their journey. The cinematography is stunning, especially for something on the small screen. Taking into account the time it was made, it was revolutionary as the quality of what was filmed was easily suitable to the big screen.

The music is outstanding. It has the right flavor of country charm with banjos and a fiddle all the way to epic-sounding backdrop to the horse and cattle drives. Again, it’s something I didn’t expect from a mini-series on television but the quality of the production is so outstanding. Lonesome Dove was one of those landmark mini-series along with Roots and Shogun that were of the highest quality and didn’t sacrifice the story for television.

The story of Jake Spoon is a central point and somewhat tragic as the men move along. Reconciling his character now with who Gus and Call once knew can be difficult as it seems he has strayed quite a bit from the man who once rode with them, although there are hints that he wasn’t of the same caliber they were. Jake doesn’t want to accept responsibility for anything throughout the story and in the end it will cost him. He doesn’t want the responsibility of helping a whore in a bar clean up the mess, so he leaves with a group on the way out and falls in with murderers and horse-thieves. He’s such a coward that he doesn’t stand up to them even when he knows what they are doing is wrong and is just out to preserve his own skin.

Likewise, the evolution of Newt throughout the story is evident. Although he seems to be on the perimeter as to the events going on, he is there taking it all in and slowly evolving from gangly, eager, kid to a responsible adult whom Gus and Call can rely on. It’s more Gus prodding him along and trying to send him in the direction he thinks he should go, but the two men together are the role models he needs, not the errant Jake Spoon he seems to believe is his father.

The acting is tremendous. Every performance is award-worthy, from Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall all the way down to the secondary and smaller characters, such as Chris Cooper and Glenne Headley. I thought this was the best performance I’d ever seen Rick Schroeder give, especially since up until this point he was more well-known for his child actor roles (it was prior to his NYPD Blue stint). Everyone becomes their character and I found myself forgetting who they were in real life. I never would have recognized Jones if I didn’t know the cast beforehand, and Duvall is close to the same. Even Urich who’s been considered more of a “B” actor up until now handles the errant Jake Spoon with a disingenuousness and disaffectedness that seems natural to the man and really made me think of a person and not the actor.

I never really went for western pictures before I saw Lonesome Dove. Since then, I have fallen for them and watched them with a different eye. Unlike other films, it doesn’t romance the rough lifestyle, nor shirk from showing the danger, whether it’s from nature or humanity. I didn’t like the films which sanitized the west and the frontier culture and made it seem like something it wasn’t. Lonesome Dove doesn’t do any of that and is a fine-quality production. Even if you’ve never liked westerns before, you should give it a try.


” A Conversation with Author Larry McMurtry
” Executive Producer Suzanne de Passe Discusses the Making of Lonesome Dove
” Western Historical Trivia
” Western Historical Trivia Game
” Cast & Crew Biographies
” Production Notes

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