Revisiting my Childhood Cowboys

Having finished The Wire and The Sopranos and Deadwood and Rome and still waiting on the next seasons of Galactica and Lost to hit DVD, I talked Mary into watching the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s novel.  Having been away from it for almost twenty years, I only remembered the basic plot details and a few one-liners that have lived on as Gilmour house dialogue.

Some fond memories from childhood hold up over time, and others just make one realize what one forgets over time.  The miniseries was some of both.  The story wasn’t by any means a bad one, but ultimately it was just a very very long cowboy movie (I wonder whether the producers and editors could have cut one of the six hours out simply by shortening the sequences where cows file past with orchestral strings playing in the background) with some very big names playing standard cowboy movie characters.  It has Jake Spoon, the fallen ranger; Lorena, the hooker with a heart of gold (Diane Lane); Clara, the long-abandoned lover who could never get the cowboy to settle down (Anjelica Houston); and Blue Duck, the Indian murderer/rapist/kidnapper/torturer who’s bad enough to be the Manichean bad guy to a bunch of flawed Mark-Twainish good guys.  There are also bumbling hired hands, the youngster who comes into his own and takes over the ranch when the old-timers fade into the sunset (played by Ricky Schroder at the tail end of his Ricky years), and Josh Deets, the tracker, played by Danny Glover, who might just be the most magical one of his sort until Will Smith comes along to play Bagger Vance.  (The character even makes a post-mortem appearance to guide a bumbling hired hand back to the herd.)

Two characters do set Lonesome Dove apart, namely Augustus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, and Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Both are retired Texas rangers who decide to lead a cattle drive when they hear that there is good land up for grabs (which is to say to grab from Indians) in the Montana territory.  I can’t think of a Duvall character I don’t like, and old Gus is no exception.  The man can just deliver one-liners like no other actor, and the long sequences of cattle filing past were worth the wait so long as I remembered that Duvall was going to be on screen soon laying another one down, preferably with Jones playing his straight man.  McMurtry’s story has the two men’s lives so intertwined that they’re nearly incapable of human relationships outside of their friendship, but nonetheless they’re great on screen, Duvall throwing three zingers a scene and Jones scowling and telling Duvall that he’s full of beans.  If somebody released a digest version with just those two characters’ dialogue, that might be worth watching in its own right.

Overall I wasn’t sorry to revisit this one.  I realize that most people’s childhood cowboys probably weren’t these, but they’re my cowboys, and we had a good visit.

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