Artisan // 1989 // 384 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 13th, 2000
From Texas to Montana.
Lonesome Dove, derived from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, is a large scale epic story of normal men who rise to be larger than life, and rise to the challenge to do things no one has ever attempted before. It is also a story of the cowboy; an authentic look at the tribulations of moving cattle across often hostile country. It was a story that simply couldn't be told in a couple hours, and required a television mini-series to do it justice. Artisan brings us another six-hour long mini-series on a DVD-18, but a better adaptation than their last such effort, The Stand. A fine disc and a must for fans of the Western genre.
This is another example of a story that almost didn't get told. When producer Suzanne de Passe bought the movie rights to the novel before it was even released, Hollywood thought she was nuts. Westerns were dead, and the price she paid of $50,000 was considered exorbitant. But the novel hung onto the New York Times Best Seller list, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and suddenly it didn't seem so dead. There was still the problem of adapting the novel to a screenplay; the 835-page novel simply couldn't be adapted into a two-hour format, or even 3. And the author Larry McMurtry had moved on to other projects and wasn't available. Writer William Witliff took on the task, and made an amazingly faithful recreation of the book. At that point, it seemed like everyone wanted in. A stellar cast was found, and it actually won an Emmy for casting. And why not; when you assemble a cast such as Robert Duvall (Sling Blade), Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) in his finest role to date, Danny Glover (Silverado, Lethal Weapon), Robert Urich, Rick Schroder (Crimson Tide), Angelica Huston (The Addams Family), and Diane Lane (Streets of Fire). Not a cast you would typically see for a television production. But add in 1400 head of cattle, over 100 horses, 89 speaking parts, over 1000 extras, and numerous location shoots from Texas to Montana and you don't get a typical television production. Costing nearly 20 million dollars it was a staggering investment for television. But it paid off; garnering huge ratings, was nominated for 18 Emmys and won seven, for Directing, Sound, Makeup, Costume, Casting, and Score. I was surprised only that it didn't win more.
I love Westerns but I'm pretty picky about the ones I like. Not many make it past the "see it once and toss it" category. But Lonesome Dove is pretty close to a masterpiece. Vivid characters, an engaging but classic storyline, and a gripping sense of realism and authenticity are what make it that good. Even women tend to like this one, as the female characters are all real people, instead of stage dressing as barmaids. Another thing I particularly like is that more than one thread is being followed, but they always come back together so that it doesn't devolve into multiple stories. Of course it doesn't work without great performances and high production values, and this one has both. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones especially shine throughout the film, and the interaction between their characters is as realistic and memorable as any I've seen. Everything in the film smacks of authenticity; from the clothing and sets to the dialogue and dialects. This realism comes at a price though; the Old West was a hard land, and people had to make hard choices and sometimes paid dearly, even with their lives. This film shows us all of that too.
To give an actual thumbnail sketch of the story is impossible; if it were possible then this could have been made into a regular film instead of a six-hour mini-series. But I'll do my best, realizing that I can't begin to cover everything or everyone. Robert Duvall plays Augustus "Gus" MacRae, an ex-Captain in the Texas Rangers who has retired to his Hat Creek Cattle Company in the little town of Lonesome Dove, along the Rio Grande. He is a fun-loving man who still has a great lust for life. His partner Captain Woodrow Call (Jones) is much more reserved, emotionally withdrawn in fact, but a stalwart friend. His taciturn gruffness and hard work ethic does a great job of counterbalancing MacRae's more laissez-faire attitude. When an old friend and comrade Jake Spoon (Urich), now more of a shiftless gambler, shows up and tells them about how great Montana would be for cow country, ironically it is Call who decides that they are going to make a drive 3000 miles to start a ranch there, and be the first to drive cattle there. To get the cattle, these ex-lawmen aren't above a little thievery, especially since they're stealing the cattle and horses from Mexican bandits. Young Newt Dobbs (Schroder), the young boy Call won't acknowledge as his son, gets his first taste of adventure on the cattle raid. You'll see him grow up fast on this fiercely long and difficult cattle drive. Danny Glover also puts in a great performance as Deets, a top hand who had been a Scout for MacRae and Call for over 30 years.
This unflinching look at the West extends to the women as well. Lorena Wood (Diane Lane) is a girl down on her luck, and is turning tricks in Lonesome Dove. Though several men in town are in love with her, she falls for Jake Spoon and accompanies the drive though camps outside it. The following year will test her beyond anyone's ability to imagine. Angelica Huston plays Clara, the love of Gus' life, but who chose stability over passion and married a wealthy horse trader in Nebraska. After an accident leaves her husband a vegetable, will reuniting with Gus mean a new life for both of them?
Jake Spoon arrived in Texas with some unfinished business, having accidentally killed the mayor in the last town in Arkansas he'd been in. Sheriff July Johnson, played by Chris Cooper (American Beauty) has left to bring him in, though he isn't very enthusiastic about it, even though the mayor had been his brother. He'd been pressured into it even though he knew the killing was an accident. July's wife had been one of those encouraging the trip, and it turns out she had an ulterior motive; leaving on a whiskey boat to get to Nebraska and find her old flame, an outlaw. Her motivations contrast starkly with Clara's as she has given up stability to find the man she really loves, and damn the costs.
All this does is really set up the main characters; much happens along the journey, and very little is predictable. Many other characters, both ordinary and interesting, happen along the way, or are integral parts of the story at times. I didn't mention the villains, who are believable and as vicious as they come. Unfortunately to tell more would be to give things away I do not wish to spoil for you.
So how do you bring all this to a DVD? Well, Artisan again solves the length problem by using a DVD-18, or double sided, dual layered disc. Since the mini-series appeared as four episodes, you get two on each side, along with supplements. Side A's extras include two interviews; one with author Larry McMurtry, and the other with producer Suzanne de Passe. I found the latter much more interesting. Side B's has extensive text notes of western trivia concerning all aspects of the cowboy era and trail drives. It is some 65 pages of text. If you have read the text, and I found it quite informative, then you are ready to play the Western Trivia Game that comes next. See if you can answer the questions and get your herd to Montana. The good guys will show up when you answer correctly, and the villains if you get one wrong. Extensive production notes, very thorough cast and crew bios and filmographies, and the trailer for the DVD presentation are also included.
How does it look? Well, it was filmed for television, and therefore is a full frame presentation. Westerns usually demand a widescreen aspect ratio, and I have to wonder if one could have been done. Probably you wouldn't gain much since they knew as they set up each shot that it had to fit into the standard TV frame. The picture is free of film defects and artifacts, making for a very smooth look. My only complaints is that it was a little soft in it's imaging, not giving the riveting looks of say, Silverado (which is also one of the locations for the film). The color palette was a bit soft and muted as well, though not badly so. Overall it looked like a very clear television picture, such as off satellite, minus the jagged edges and artifacts that you sometimes get off a dish. I'm pleased if not overwhelmed by the results.
The sound is about the same as the video, being a regular Dolby 2.0 track. I suppose nothing more was done since it was filmed for television. Dialogue remains clear, and I have no real complaints. The soundstage is more than expansive enough, the sound effects realistic; the only place it suffers is in directional panning and imaging to the rear. The surrounds are used moderately throughout, in a fairly typical Pro-Logic way. Very nice overall, again just not overwhelming in quality. The score is impressive, however. Something about Westerns invite a grand sweeping score with many emotional overtones, and this one does a fine job at accomplishing both. The Emmy award winning score works to enhance and drive the story along, not just accompany it. Its main theme is both grandly expansive and somehow deeply intimate. An amazing 225 minutes of music was composed for the series, and none of it is found lacking.
The biggest complaints, and they are not large ones, are all concerned with this having come from television rather than a theatrical presentation. The pacing of the series is, of course, set around the commercial breaks for television. Producer Suzanne de Passe admits some things would have been done differently for seeing it straight through. While I think it's still great, it could have been even better with some differences there. A fair amount of footage was cut as well for time constraints, and I wish they could have been it brought back for the DVD. Of course even now it comes in at over six hours so space might have been a big factor there. I'm sure space was a concern for other extras as well, such as a commentary track that would have been welcome.
The other complaints from the television format are the picture and sound. Something this good would have been much better if it had been done in anamorphic widescreen with a detailed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. But no theater could have run something of this length, so you take what you can get, and it's very good.
The only disc complaint is the complete lack of subtitles, something Artisan is supposed to be getting on board with.
If you are a fan of westerns, then run, don't walk to the store to buy this one. The performances and story rate purchase alone, but the disc's supplements and clarity are also persuasive. For those who don't like westerns this one might be a tad long. But I'd go so far as to say give it a rental anyway. And ladies should not assume they will not like it; there are some strong women and well developed story for them here as well.
All involved with Lonesome Dove are acquitted without argument. Artisan is commended for a fine disc as well, and has again shown they are the experts at bringing off a long mini-series on DVD-18. A fine effort all around.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 384 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Notes
* Western Trivia Text
* Western Trivia Game
* Cast and Crew Bios and Filmographies